Breakthrough brings viable biofuels a step closer

An international team of scientists has made an important breakthrough that may make biofuels a more viable solution to the world’s energy problem. The new discovery should allow biofuel to […]

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An international team of scientists has made an important breakthrough that may make biofuels a more viable solution to the world’s energy problem. The new discovery should allow biofuel to be made without jeopardising food supplies.

Most biofuels are made by fermenting the sugars found in plants. The sugars in grains and seeds are easily accessible, which is why we eat them and why they’re used for biofuel. But it means fuel comes at the cost of food.

Scientists from the US, Scotland and Belgium have discovered a technique which could help make biofuel more effectively from parts of plants we don’t eat or from woody plants that can be grown in soil unfit for food production.

They’ve found a new enzyme which helps make a substance called lignin found in the cell walls of plants. The lignin acts like cement trapping sugars in the cell wall – sugars we use to make biofuels. By knocking out a gene the team have found a way to release the trapped sugars and so release more energy.

One of the scientists involved in the project, Professor Claire Halpin of the University of Dundee said: “It looks like it could be very useful in trying to manipulate plant biomass to generate biofuels and other chemicals from non-food crops. Our studies showed that in the plant we studied we were able to release around 75% more sugars from cellulose without needing harsh chemical treatments.”