- Number 379 |
- January 7, 2012
Scientists at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory used a unique combination of imaging methods to gain unprecedented insight into the structure of cell walls in plants, a breakthrough that could lead to optimizing sugar yields and lowering costs of making biofuels.
Principal investigator Shi-You Ding and his team found that the gummy, non-sugar lignin in plants interferes with enzymes’ ability to access the polysaccharides in the cell wall – the stuff that both the enzymes and the industry want.
So, the NREL team concluded, the ideal pre-treatment of plants for biofuels should focus on getting rid of the lignin, but leaving the valuable polysaccharides within the cell walls intact. That would leave a loose, porous structure that affords enzymes easy access. And, it would be an improvement over pretreatments that remove some of the spongier carbohydrate polymers and allow the remainder to collapse into tighter structures that are tougher for enzymes to access.
To study liquids and glasses, a collaborating team from Materials Development Inc.; Stony Brook University in New York; and DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory has developed a container-less sample environment, in which a drop of pure liquid literally “floats” on a jet of flowing gas.
This aerodynamic levitator sample environment has been installed on the Nanoscale-Ordered Materials Diffractometer (NOMAD) at the Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL. There, the research team is using it to study small drops of liquids such as calcium, magnesium, and aluminum silicates.
Due to continuing high demand, depletion of non-renewable resources and increasing concerns about climate change, fossil fuel-derived transportation fuels face constant challenges from both a world market and an environmental perspective. Producing renewable transportation fuel from microalgae attracts much attention because of its potential for fast growth rates, high oil content, ability to grow in unconventional scenarios, and its inherent carbon neutrality.
Microalgae are microscopic, single-cell organisms that exist in fresh water and marine environments and also at the bottom of the food chain. Under optimal conditions, microalgae can be grown in massive, almost limitless, amounts. Almost half of microalgae’s weight is lipid oil. Scientists have been studying this oil for decades to convert it into biodiesel – a fuel that burns cleaner and more efficiently than petroleum. Moreover, the use of microalgae would minimize "food versus fuel" concerns associated with several biomass strategies, as microalgae do not compete with food crops in the food chain.