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Research Highlight

Plant-Derived Terpenes: A Feedstock for Specialty Biofuels

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in collaboration with The University of Tennessee, The Australian National Laboratory University, and the University of Florida has published in the journal Trends in Biotechnology a review on a proposed roadmap for the commercialization of specific terpenes of plants.

Research toward renewable and sustainable energy has identified specific terpenes (also known as terpenoids or isoprenoids) which are capable of supplementing or replacing current petroleum-derived fuels.  Scientists are exploring energy-rich terpenes as specialty biofuels.

Terpenes are naturally produced and stored by several plants and the biosynthesis is thought to be regulated at multiple levels leading to wide variability in terpene content and chemistries.  Terpenes are currently used commercially and have industrial uses such as agrichemicals, fragrances, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals.

Plant-derived terpenes represent an alternative sustainable source of energy, potentially easing fossil fuel dependences.  However, naturally derived terpenes have not been commercially implemented as biofuels owing to the low yield of targeted specific terpenes in plants and plant tissues. Terpenes can be used directly or blended with existing jet fuel (Jet-A, JP-5 and JP-8), missile propellants (JP-10), gasoline, and/or diesel fuels. Eucalyptus are an excellent candidate for specialty fuels production for the U.S. due to their high biomass yields, broad site adaptability, available advanced germplasm and extensive commercial knowledge of breeding, propagation and management and potential uses for multiple markets.

Over the past decade, plant research has experienced considerable growth in omics technologies (i.e., DNA sequencing, RNA sequencing, metabolic profiling, and proteomics) and improvements in genome modification/editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9. Preliminary work suggests that individual genotypes within a given species vary greatly in their terpene content. Leveraging omics data from high yielding genotypes can inform metabolic models on the genetic control and phenotypic variance available for improvement of terpenes within select lines. These developments, combined with the inherent ability of many plants to synthesize and store terpenes, provide a powerful platform for the commercial-scale production of terpenes for future biofuels.

Mewalal, R, DK Rai, D Kainer, F Chen, C Külheim, GF Peter, GA Tuskan. 2017. Plant-derived terpenes: A feedstock for specialty biofuels. Trends in Biotechnology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2016.08.003

This work was supported by ORNL’s LDRD program; Project ID 7428.

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