Mutant biofuel offers more power

  • Much of today’s biofuel is generated using cellulose; a membrane complex that surrounds plant cell walls. Enzymes target the cellulose and convert it into sugars which can then be used for fuel production. However, as cellulose is has a very stable, crystallised structure, it is difficult for enzymes to break it down. This may lead to lower than optimal energy yields.
  • In response, new research has genetically modified plants to “weaken” the cellulose cell walls and make them easier to break down for biofuel. The results show that not only does the modification show real changes in cell wall composition, it also makes the cellulose easier to extract for conversion.
  • These advances could make biofuels a more viable and sustainable option for energy production in the future. Critically, as agricultural land becomes increasingly in demand for food production, increasing the bio-energy yield per crop has the potential to reduce land use pressures and marginally reduce conflict in land use.
  • However, as GM crops are currently banned in the UK, changes in the political landscape would be needed to maximise the benefits. In addition, field-based research would be required to ensure that weakening the cell walls did not lead to reductions in crop resilience to disease/ drought/ other confounding factors that may affect production rates.

Either way, GM technologies may provide a potential solution to improve biofuels, at a time when they are being increasingly used for defence, aerospace, and transport.

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About Hayley Shaw

Knowledge Exchange Manager at Cranfield University's Centre for Environmental Risks and Futures (CERF). Sharing the latest news from Cranfield, and insights from across the industry. All things risk, environment, and the future.
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3 Responses to Mutant biofuel offers more power

  1. Dr M C Smith says:

    Given the amount we would need to grow to replace our reliance on fossil fuels, this is hardly a workable solution and is more of a solution of political convince (short term, and doesn’t upset many voters). Given the nature of futures work is to challenge such assumptions, I think you need to stop looking for quick structural fixes to global problems and concentrate on bringing the more substantive questions to the fore before it is too late!

  2. Hayley Shaw says:

    Hi Mark,
    Really appreciate your interest in the futures work, and would welcome more comments in the future, but I’m afraid I don’t agree with a lot of your points here. I think perhaps you misunderstand the purpose of the horizon scanning work, and actually misunderstand this post.

    To clarify, this post does NOT suggest that biofuel should replace fossil fuel, it simply hints that new technology is available that might increase the efficiency of its use. The post also does NOT make any suggestion that this is the quick fix we have all been waiting for, in fact it notes that it will only “marginally reduce conflicts in land use”.

    This article also states:
    “GM technologies may provide a potential solution to improve biofuels, at a time when they are being increasingly used for defence, aerospace, and transport.”

    We therefore do not say biofuels are the answer, rather we say that if people are going to use biofuel, then GM crops may help to improve the process. Contrary to what you suggest, given the public is anti-GM, this may not be an easy political decision.

    Finally, the horizon scanning work we are commissioned to do does NOT seek to provide a substantive review of major issues every quarter. Rather, these insights are simply to alert Government to a range of opportunities and risks at the margins of their current thinking, and to help them think about the implications of those issues (whether positive or negative).

    Some of our large scale futures research does make recommendations on strategic issues (e.g. how to achieve a greener food system by 2050, or how to improve river basin management), but this would be based on a much broader evidence base, and would go through a much more rigorous process of consultation. As you will see, we now create around 40 insights a quarter. It would be impossible to make each of these insights into a robust policy recommendation, or to cover the broad range of issues associated with each. These insights are intentionally brief and accessible to ensure our audience gets a snapshot of “what’s new or emerging”. Our Government audience is aware that these insights are merely insights, which they need to consider alongside other evidence, policy tools, and knowledge.

    I hope that clears things up, and hope you’re enjoying your time at Bangor.

    • Dr M C Smith says:

      Not sure if this posted before:

      A) I comment as an expert at another university working on the implementation and mobilisation of different forms of evidence with a background in environmental policy making. Therefore I take a professional and personal interest in your project.
      B) I was making points about my thoughts on futures work in general and was not intending to directly criticise your project, apologies if that was not clear.
      C) The point I was trying to make was that futures should be doing more to challenge the zeitgeist of the positivist paradigm in environmental science, and fully appreciate this goes beyond the scope and remit of your project.
      D) The multi-disciplinary nature of environmental policy making means that evidence is contested, and is often contradictory – decision science will tell you that policy making is a ‘political’ process of deciding between competing interests, of which environmental science is but one stakeholder. The inherent problem has always been that different scientific paradigms are somewhat antagonistic to each other, with some more open to new ideas than others!
      E) Bangor was a good move, and is immensely rewarding and enjoyable

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