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Plants can help lower the cost of biofuel production

Plants can be genetically modified to produce valuable chemical compounds, known as bioproducts, to help cover the cost of converting plant waste into biofuel. Researchers at the Berkeley Lab have found promising new evidence that this strategy is economically feasible.

Biofuels have amazing potential as an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels. Currently, however, biofuels are much more expensive to manufacture. 

Extracting bioproducts from plants could significantly lower the cost of biofuel production. “It’s a really elegant solution, to be able to engineer a plant to directly accumulate a valuable bioproduct,” said study co-lead author Corinne Scown. 

The investigation was focused on a group of bioproducts that plants can already produce, such as flavors and fragrances. The team designed and simulated the bioproduct extraction process in the context of an ethanol biorefinery, where the leftover plant material would be converted into ethanol.

The model enabled the experts to quantify how much of a particular bioproduct that plants must be able to deliver for a cost effective approach to biofuel production. The results showed that the target amount was unexpectedly attainable. 

“The researchers in our Feedstocks Division were surprised by how modest the target levels were,” said Scown. “The levels we need to accumulate in plants to offset the cost of bioproduct recovery and drive down the price of biofuels are well within reach.”

While the research confirms that using modified plants to reduce the cost of biofuels is feasible, the market demand may not be high enough for the bioproducts that plants are currently capable of making. 

Scown explained that crops need to be engineered to produce a broad range of products to make sure the industry is diversified. She said the study provides a starting point for scientists who are attempting to engineer plants that create bioproducts to offset the cost of making biofuels.

“I think this research is just the first step to demonstrating the future potential of engineered bioenergy feedstock crops,” said study co-lead author Patrick Shih. “I would imagine that our findings will help motivate future efforts to make biofuels economically viable.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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