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The Science Behind Cheaper Biofuels

August 15, 2011 - 11:50am

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Brookhaven National Laboratory is modeling the metabolic processes in rapeseed plants to optimize production of plant oils for biofuels. Shown above are developing embryos extracted from a growing rapeseed plant. The embryos accumulate seed oils which represent the most energy-dense form of biologically stored sunlight, and have great potential as renewable resources for fuel and industrial chemicals.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is modeling the metabolic processes in rapeseed plants to optimize production of plant oils for biofuels. Shown above are developing embryos extracted from a growing rapeseed plant. The embryos accumulate seed oils which represent the most energy-dense form of biologically stored sunlight, and have great potential as renewable resources for fuel and industrial chemicals.

Biofuels hold great potential not only for reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but also for creating new jobs and economic opportunities for America’s rural communities (a billion tons-worth of opportunities, to be exact).

Scientists in the U.S. have already paved the way for biofuels to supplement and eventually even replace oil in the coming decades. However, in order for biofuels to compete with oil in the U.S. market, they need to be made cheaper. This is why the Energy Department is spearheading research to develop crops that produce more biofuel, which will lower costs.

Just last week, the Energy and Agriculture Departments announced 10 new awards totaling $12.2 million for research projects that aim to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of growing biofuel and bioenergy crops. We’ve also established three Bioenergy Research Centers to pursue the fundamental scientific breakthroughs to advance the biofuels industry. And, many of our national labs are researching ways to improve production.

We’re seeing noteworthy discoveries and breakthroughs in the science behind making biofuels cheaper. To illustrate, here are two from last week alone:

  • A team of researchers at the BioEnergy Science Center pinpointed the exact, single gene that controls ethanol production capacity in a microorganism found in many types of biomass crops. This discovery could be the missing link in developing biomass crops that produce higher concentrations of ethanol.  
  • Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have developed a computational model for analyzing the metabolic processes in rapeseed plants — particularly those related to the production of oils in their seeds. This model will help optimize the production of plant oils that have widespread potential as renewable resources for fuel and industrial chemicals.

Both developments sound complicated, but the results are pretty simple: We’re moving in the direction of creating crops that will make it cheaper to produce biofuels, so it’s more competitive with oil.

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