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Power Biotech Science

Cheaper Fuel From Self-Destructing Trees 112

sciencehabit (1205606) writes "Wood is great for building and heating homes, but it's the bane of biofuels. When converting plants to fuels, engineers must remove a key component of wood, known as lignin, to get to the sugary cellulose that's fermented into alcohols and other energy-rich compounds. That's costly because it normally requires high temperatures and caustic chemicals. Now, researchers in the United States and Canada have modified the lignin in poplar trees to self-destruct under mild processing conditions—a trick that could slash the cost of turning plant biomass into biofuels."
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Cheaper Fuel From Self-Destructing Trees

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  • Wood fuel (Score:5, Funny)

    by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @12:33AM (#46658031)

    Got wood, eh?

    • Trees in America and Europe are dying in large number due to infestation from foreign bugs / diseases / viruses

      Examples of the diseases / bugs / viruses are Chestnut Bright, Emerald Ash Borer, Asian long-horned beetle, Spruce Needle Cast Disease, and so on.

      And those boffins are tinkering with even more American trees so that they become self-destructive more easily??

      • by mjwx ( 966435 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @03:10AM (#46658621)
        Which is exactly why the US need 'Splodin trees.

        2nd Amendment Rights

        Well armed forest, take that treehuggers.
      • by pspahn ( 1175617 )

        Interesting that a majority of species of trees in the US are also of foreign origin.

      • Poplar trees are basicaly weeds, they grow fast, are invasive, die quickly and are easily pushed out by more stable trees; don't worry about them.

    • Except for hoping for God to give us a burning bush that doesn't get consumed in flames, we genetically make our own!

  • bio fuel? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 04, 2014 @12:52AM (#46658103)

    Wood is biofuel. There is a device which when paired with a dense wood like Robinia pseudoacacia which has as much energy as anthacite coal and when harvested dumps nitrogen into the soil so that other plants grow faster and it grows back faster than it did the first time. So why can't all our power sources be food producing, fertilzer producing, erosion stopping, medicine producing, ecology improving, and sustainable?

    • You are aware just how many companies would suffer from that? There are jobs at stake, to hell with the planet!

      • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

        You are aware just how many companies would suffer from that? There are jobs at stake, to hell with the planet!

        Funny, I thought that the environmentalists would be the ones throwing a hissy fit over it. After all, in the US you import the majority of your wood from Canada...because of insane EPA regulations, while here in Canada we have a good policy of select harvest, select clear cutting, and replanting policies.

      • Who cares about jobs? There are profits at stake!

        • Yes, sure, but you don't actually say it like that. That's something someone could object to. But dare to object to protecting jobs!

    • You know, somehow I still think that thermal depolymerization is a better process for larger applications.
      • Probably would be but the company that owns the patents either aren't licensing to others or isn't able to interest companies with pockets deep enough to buy licences. I believe the key patents will run out in about 5 or 6 years now.

  • Wood IS fuel (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lodlaiden ( 2767969 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @01:02AM (#46658139)
    Apply heat and O2 to complete fire triangle.
    • Re:Wood IS fuel (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @03:54AM (#46658791)

      But not a very good one. The energy to weight ratio sucks, it leaves large amounts of ash, and, being solid, can't be used in any of the myriad applications that require liquid or gaseous fuel. The problems with energy to weight and ash are large enough that as soon as coal mining was developed, coal almost completely replaced wood in people's fireplaces and stoves (until coal itself was replaced by gas and electricty and fireplaces by central heating). It's also quite polluting, as a matter of fact.

      • being solid, can't be used in any of the myriad applications that require liquid or gaseous fuel

        That's not a significant problem for use, it's much more of an issue for transport. Gas and oil can be transported long distances through pipes, with just the occasional pump along the way to give it a boost. Wood has to be stacked onto trucks and then transported along roads or railways. You can't just turn on a tap in a house and have wood come out, so everyone needs a wood shed or equivalent to store it, taking up a lot of space.

      • FFS, why do we have this ethanol fetish? Just make methanol instead, so you don't have to worry about lignin in the first place.

        I know, I know... Monsanto gets massive gubmint kickbacks for growing corn, not trees. But the rest of us can run our cars on methanol just as easily as ethanol (assuming you've got a fully flex-fuel vehicle). Last time I checked, methanol was selling for about $1.50/gal. Granted, it's only 80% as energy dense as gasoline, but that's still a pretty good bargain at current prices.


      • But not a very good one. The energy to weight ratio sucks, it leaves large amounts of ash, and, being solid, can't be used in any of the myriad applications that require liquid or gaseous fuel.

        The cost to heat ratio is what I am concerned about. The electric/gas company tells me every year it costs more and more to keep my house at barely acceptable levels. Wood, on the other hand costs me almost exactly the same as it did the first year I started harvesting (I've gotten better at it, so it's actually cheaper).

        I require no "specialized" tools or licenses to obtain, transport, refine, or consume it. A cord of wood will produce about 4 buckets of ash (about 1% of the total weight), which i will d

    • by PolygamousRanchKid ( 1290638 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @04:56AM (#46658995)

      Apply heat and O2 to complete fire triangle.

      Well, you’re obviously being totally naive of course. When you’ve been in marketing as long as I have, you'll know that before any new product can be developed it has to be properly researched. We’ve got to find out what people want from fire, how they relate to it, what sort of image it has for them.

      Do people want fire that can be fitted nasally?

      If you're so clever, you tell us what color fire should be.

    • So is crude oil. So why not throw it straight into your car engine?

  • Gasification (Score:5, Interesting)

    by do_be_jack ( 3603697 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @01:16AM (#46658183)
    combine gasification generators with a nitrogen fixing energy rich wood like Robina pseudoacacia,which grows back faster and makes surrounding plants grow better after it is cut, planted around fruit trees and other useful species and then the act of harvesting wood makes plants grow and the act of generating electricity makes fertilizer. With the right generator [] there is only a positive environmental impact to the harvesting and generating of energy which when used in conjunction with a food/medicine forest http://www.beaconfoodforest.or... [] you have good hunting beautiful landscape and no reason to leave home. There are food forests around which are over 2000 years old still going and no one knows who planted them.
  • people will now just complain that their doesn't have a GMO label. :-p
  • So why use trees? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @01:43AM (#46658255) Homepage Journal

    If all you want is the cellulose and fiber, hemp produces paper-quality fiber at nearly 4 times the rate per acre/year as even poplar trees do.

    Oh, right. Gotta keep all those woodchippers employed. :(

    • And hemp's baaaad, mmmkay?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 04, 2014 @02:26AM (#46658421)

      If you actually read TFA you will find that they have succeeded in a trial using poplar trees, but they are now working on corn that has the modified lignin.

      And while you wonder about hemp, I wonder about algae. Algae doesn't bother to produce support structures and you can grow a "crop" in ten days rather than a year. We need to improve our technologies for "bioreactors" (I think they tend to get plugged up) and we need to improve the process for converting algae to fuel (algae is wet and it has a high energy cost to remove the water as part of making a fuel). []

      I wonder if thermal depolymerization can be used to convert algae to fuel? []

      Alas, TDP doesn't seem to have worked out as well as hoped. I remember reading excited news stories about offal being turned into clean diesel, but the company that tried it lost money and shut down.

      • by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @03:02AM (#46658575)

        algae has many great aspect. It's achilles heels are 1) separation is very expensive 2) it's hard to get enough C02 into the water to do this at scale 3) it can get infected easily 3) inhomgenous growth requires active stiring or other tricks to bring a pond to harvest all at the same time 4) it's not that fast to grow-- poplars and switch grass are more efficient bio mass producers. Ethanol can be made from waste products too.

        The upside of algae is that were starting to learn how to use some of it's byproducts and this offsets the costs. and incremental progress is being made on all these aspects. We haven't been growing algae as long as plants so there's potential headroom to grow. It can grow in seawater. lipids are better fuel than alchohol. And finally it's potentially less energetically expensive to sperarate lipids from water than alchohol from water. That step accounts for something like 1/3 of the cost of ethanol.

        • Once you have separated the lipids from the algea, there still should be a fair amount of cellulose, starch and sugars for ethanol production although methanol is easier to use for biodiesel produntion.

      • And while you wonder about hemp, I wonder about algae. Algae doesn't bother to produce support structures and you can grow a "crop" in ten days rather than a year.

        And while you wonder about algae I recognize that burning things is bad, and wonder about improving the efficiency of extracting energy directly from the sunlight itself.

        • Re:So why use trees? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Neil Boekend ( 1854906 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @06:31AM (#46659357)

          Storage is a problem with sunlight. Burnable fuels do not have that problem.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Biofuels *ARE* the storage medium for sunlight.

            • Yest, but they are a rather cheap, easy and high density storage medium. Solar panels and batteries have neither of those traits. They are more efficient, but the cost per joule is far above that of plants.

        • Burning isn't always bad.

          Burning carbon sources that are the accumulation of millions of years of photosynthesis is bad, because you are net-adding carbon to the atmosphere.

          Efficiently burning renewable carbon sources (while controlling other embedded pollutants) is not so bad, because over a reasonable timeframe you are merely putting carbon into the atmosphere that your fuel sources took out several years before; rinse & repeat, with little effect on long-term atmospheric carbon pollution.

  • The article isn't really about making biofuel from self-destructing trees. It's about introducing the mechanism through which the lignin (in the trees) destructs to other crops that grow much faster and leave a lot of waste, like corn.

    Personally, I think that sourcing energy from biofuel will never really scale, anyway...

  • by quantaman ( 517394 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @01:50AM (#46658277)

    My gut says the reason it's so hard to deal with the current form of ligin is parasites would have evolved to eat anything simpler. Do they have any strategy for preventing parasites from finding the trick to breaking down the ligin in these modified trees?

    Either way it does sounds pretty cool.

    • That is one of the things that is safe to test in the field. Maybe it isn't a problem at all, and if it is then the problem solves itself.

  • Why corn? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @02:06AM (#46658347) Journal

    Ralph says his team is already working to insert zip-lignins into corn plants.

    I know we grow a lot of corn, but why not insert the gene into kudzu or some other fast growing weed that thrives on marginal land with low fertilizer inputs?
    It's not like we don't already have a use for every part of the corn plant.

  • by mjwx ( 966435 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @02:08AM (#46658359)
    This tree will self destruct in 5 seconds.
  • A giant saquioa can sequester over 2000 tons of carbon from the air and live for 2500 years.

    If you planted 1 million of these trees you could sequester 2,000,000,000 tons of carbon for 2500 years! If you plant enough of these sequoias you could literally sequester all the United States's excess CO2 for 2500 years.

    2500 years is a hell of a long time for us to design and perfect new technologies that can better solve are carbon crisis.

    • Assuming that those trees do that sequestration thing instantly (they don't - it takes centuries for a sequoia to grow that large), we're talking about removing ~0.06% of the current CO2 levels from the atmosphere by doing what you describe.

      Which means that in just a century, we can lower atmospheric CO2 from today's level to last week's level....

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, once this genetic defect - I mean modification - crosses the line and goes wild (although Monsanto tells us it never happens), how fast and hot will those forests burn?

  • by TrentTheThief ( 118302 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @05:24AM (#46659093)

    Using wood to create BioFuels is extremely wasteful of both time and material.

    Use hemp instead. You'll get two huge crops per year. And it's a crop made of easy-to-process plant material. No lignin involved. Just process the green matter.

    • Hemp is pretty low in recoverable energy compared to many other... oh wait... nevermind...

      • It has the benefit of being able to outproduce any wood product and you can get two crops per year in much of the US. Also, the recovery methods for hemp don't require any acids, unlike trees.

  • Save the trees? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tp1024 ( 2409684 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @07:24AM (#46659537)

    Erm, wasn't there something the greenies used to say? Like save the trees? Protect the forests? Leave room for nature?

    Well, obviously I must have been hallucinating all the ways through the 90ies. And don't worry, I'll see a psychiatrist about this decade-long delusion at once. But let's pretend there had been an environmental movement in the second half of the last century, when people said that there is some inherent value in nature itself. Wouldn't you think that people in this movement would have been somewhat upset about the prospect of converting huge tracts of land that used be called "forests" into industrial fuel plantations? Well, I for one would imagine they'd be, but they are not.

    Hence my suspicion that I was merely hallucinating. If I don't respond, I guess I stuck in comfy happy white room.

    • You are muddling together millions of people with a bunch of different motivations and ideas.
      • You are muddling together millions of people with a bunch of different motivations and ideas.

        He's almost ready to run for office.

  • by ThatsNotPudding ( 1045640 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @07:55AM (#46659653)
    The toughest part is to make sure they don't scream as they destruct; the licensing fees would be too expensive.
  • They hoped that by introducing paired building blocks throughout the lignin, they could later “unzip” the lignin’s structure during pretreatment.

    You unzipped me, it's all coming BACK!

  • Instead of all this creation of new Frankenplants, why not just use termites. They seem to have no problem breaking down lignin at lower temperatures, and it doesn't required monkeying around with plant genes.

  • Didn't the US EPA recently place a total ban on heating homes with wood?

    Related: []

    So what exactly do the US researchers hope to achieve here?
    • Didn't the US EPA recently place a total ban on heating homes with wood?

      They better not drive down my block then.

  • This is not a rant on bioengineering per se. Humans deliberately producing Things with desirable traits is as old as rain. But when I see folks attempting to leverage marginally successful processes into solutions to Big Problems by reducing the margins... I have to take a step backwards to glimpse more of the picture.

    If you are going to involve 'new' plants (or animals) in the production of energy, pause to think.

    1. Energy required by humans is a monster growing exponentially. This monster EATS. This is i

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