Berkeley Lab researchers discover possible method to reduce cost of biofuels

Irina Silva, JBEI-LBNL/Courtesy

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Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found that the inhibition of an enzyme can reduce a substance that forms plant cell walls, potentially resulting in cheaper biofuels.

Aymerick Eudes, one of the researchers, and Dominique Loque, the director of Cell Wall Engineering at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, or JBEI, led a team of scientists that found that the enzyme HCT could be inhibited in order to reduce lignin, a substance that is responsible for both the formation of cell walls and the health of plants.

Lignin must be broken down in a pretreatment process in order to convert plants to biofuels — fuels that come from biological matter — which can be used to power cars. This process, however, is expensive, so scientists have attempted to reduce the amount of lignin in plants in order to reduce costs.

To do this, the scientists added molecules to certain parts of the plant, which inhibited the enzyme. This was possible due to the enzyme’s ability to bind with many different molecules.

Consequently, scientists can choose where in the plant to reduce lignin, which is beneficial because certain parts of the plant, such as vessels that conduct water, need lignin to function effectively and keep the plant healthy.

Maintaining the health of the plants is important to the production of biofuels because healthy plants generate more biomass from which sugars that produce biofuel come.

Tests based on this research have shown that lignin can be reduced by 30 percent while sugar release has improved by 25 percent, both of which are quite significant improvements, according to Eudes.

The reduction in lignin makes the biomass pretreatment process cheaper, and the higher sugar release will also reduce the cost of raw sugars. If this research were implemented in the biofuel industry, biofuel costs would go down, and biofuels would become more sustainable.

According to Blake Simmons, chief science and technology officer at JBEI, lignin “is a very ‘hot’ area of research” for bioenergy, and the Berkeley Lab team ought to be considered pioneers in its field for developing the new approach.

Eudes noted that the implementation of the technology in the industry will not be immediate because the plants modified in the process would be considered GMOs, and therefore will require many time-consuming regulatory tests.

Gerald Tuskan, corporate fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who conducts research on cell wall chemistry, explained that the new approach is an important breakthrough in the field of biofuel and lignin research but expressed doubt regarding whether it could be turned into a commercial biofuel product.

“I believe it will be a part of the solution, but by itself will not be the sole answer to the problem,” Tuskan said.

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