Wind in the willows boosts biofuel production

Jan 20, 2013
Willow trees cultivated for green energy can yield up to five times more biofuel if they grow diagonally, compared with those that are allowed to grow naturally up towards the sky. This effect had been observed in the wild and in plantations around the UK, but scientists were previously unable to explain why some willows produced more biofuel than others. Now researchers at Imperial College London have identified a genetic trait that causes this effect and is activated in some trees when they sense they are at an angle, such as where they are blown sideways in windy conditions. Credit: Imperial College London

(Phys.org)—Willow trees cultivated for 'green energy' can yield up to five times more biofuel if they grow diagonally, compared with those that are allowed to grow naturally up towards the sky.

This effect had been observed in the wild and in plantations around the UK, but scientists were previously unable to explain why some willows produced more biofuel than others.

Now British researchers have identified a that causes this effect and is activated in some trees when they sense they are at an angle, such as where they are blown sideways in windy conditions.

The effect creates an excess of strengthening in the willows' stems, which attempt to straighten the plant upwards. These high-energy sugars are fermented into biofuels when the trees are harvested in a process that currently needs to be more efficient before it can rival the production of fossil fuels.

Willow is cultivated widely across the UK, destined to become biofuels for motor vehicles, heating systems and industry. The researchers say that in the future all willow crops could be bred for this genetic trait, making them a more productive and greener energy source.

The study was led by Dr Nicholas Brereton and Dr Michael Ray, both from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, who worked with researchers at Rothamsted Research, and the University of the Highlands and Islands' Institute (at Orkney College UHI). The study is published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels.

Dr Brereton said: "We've known for some time that environmental stresses can cause trees to naturally develop a slightly modified 'reaction wood' and that it can be easier to release sugars from this wood. This is an important breakthrough, our study now shows that natural genetic variations are responsible for these differences and this could well be the key to unlocking the future for sustainable bioenergy from willow."

The researchers conducted a trial in controlled laboratory conditions on a rooftop in central London at the Gro-dome facility at Imperial's South Kensington Campus. They cultivated some willows at an angle of 45 degrees, and looked for any genetic differences between these plants and those allowed to grow naturally straight upwards.

The team then looked for the same effect with willows growing in natural conditions on Orkney Island, off the northern-most coast of Scotland, where winds are regularly so strong that the trees are constantly bent over at severe angles. Their measurements confirmed that the willows here could release five times more sugar than identical trees grown in more sheltered conditions at Rothamsted Research in the south of the UK.

Dr Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research who leads the BBSRC-funded BSBEC-BioMASS project said "We are very excited about these results because they show that some willows respond more to , such as strong winds, by changing the composition of their wood in ways that are useful to us. As breeders this is good news because it means we could improve willow by selecting these types from the huge diversity in our collections".

This work forms part of the BBSRC Sustainable Centre (BSBEC) where it is linked with other programmes aimed at improving the conversion of biomass to fuels. Coupled with work at Rothamsted Research, where the National Willow Collection is held, the new results will help scientists to grow crops in climatically challenging conditions where the options for growing food crops are limited, therefore minimising conflicts of food versus fuel.

Explore further: Scientists tap trees' evolutionary databanks to discover environment adaptation strategies

More information: www.biotechnologyforbiofuels.com/content/5/1/83

Related Stories

Sweet success for sustainable biofuel research

Jan 25, 2010

Scientists have found a way to increase fermentable sugar stores in plants which could lead to plant biomass being easier to convert into eco-friendly sustainable biofuels. Their research is highlighted in the latest issue ...

War on willows

Jul 29, 2011

Willows are major environmental weeds of riverbank habitats across much of south-eastern Australia. They obstruct water flow, increase water temperature, change water chemistry and can displace native riverine ...

Willow removal equals water savings

Dec 01, 2010

Removing willows growing in the stream bed of creeks and rivers could return valuable water resources to river systems, new CSIRO research has found.

Recommended for you

How a white rot tackles freshly-cut food

Dec 23, 2014

Researchers sequenced and analyzed the white rot fungus Phlebiopsis gigantea, which can break down fresh-cut conifer sapwood. They also sequenced and analyzed the set of P. gigantea's secreted proteins (secretome) ...

Bacteria could be rich source for making terpenes

Dec 23, 2014

If you've ever enjoyed the scent of a pine forest or sniffed a freshly cut basil leaf, then you're familiar with terpenes. The compounds are responsible for the essential oils of plants and the resins of ...

The origin of the language of life

Dec 19, 2014

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dschlink
5 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2013
Interesting. Some fruit growers in the USA are experimenting with Upright Fruiting Offshoots, where the tree is planted at a 45 degree angle. The technique produces higher yields, although nothing like five times as much.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.