Tech Tuesday

Unlocking Biofuel Potential

Every week brings news of another advancement in the march toward more efficient ways to product biofuel.

Purdue University Scientists have helped find a group of genes thought to be responsible for cell wall development in corn, which could help expand their ability to discover was to produce biomass best suited for biofuel production. The news comes on the heels of the announcement that the corn genome has been sequenced too.

Both findings were published in the Nov. 19 edition of the journal Science, and the news is part of a growing body of research into biofuels that offers interesting promise for the future. In Tech Tuesday, we've worked to cover research findings from universities and others on a wide range of topics. One recurring theme is the work - often funded by the U.S. Department of Energy - into new ways to produce biofuels.

When the food vs. fuel critics fire up their rhetoric, they often act as if the technology is already here to produce biomass-based biofuels. They also discount information about new ways to use corn to create not only ethanol but biodiesel as well. The truth is far different as researchers and fuel producers turn to new ways to unlock biofuel potential from a range of feedstocks including corn, sorghum, algae, corn cobs and switchgrass.

The latest finding from Purdue is interesting because the information will allow researchers to eventually custom-tailor the structure of the plant's cell walls. Corn has a unique cell wall structure, and using this information they hope to be able to catalog differences in the cell wall structures from different varieties. Long term, this fine-tuning will allow plant breeders more control over the finished product. That goes hand-in-hand with the mapping of the total corn genome that will also open doors to new breeding potential.

There's a lot of talk about the need for biofuels as part of a renewable future not bound by foreign oil. This is a journey that will take an army of scientists in basic research to unlock the secret life of plants and provide commercial resources improved products to better meet the rising need for products. Whether that biofuel product - in the end - is ethanol, biobutanol (which offers several advantages) or biodiesel, the renewable fuel future is marching forward.

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