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: Biologists develop nanosensors to visualize movements and distribution of plant hormone

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

Chrono, the last piece of the circadian clock puzzle?

11 hours ago

All organisms, from mammals to fungi, have daily cycles controlled by a tightly regulated internal clock, called the circadian clock. The whole-body circadian clock, influenced by the exposure to light, dictates the wake-sleep ...

Drought hormones measured

11 hours ago

Floods and droughts are increasingly in the news, and climate experts say their frequency will only go up in the future. As such, it is crucial for scientists to learn more about how these extreme events affect plants in ...

Research traces the genetic print of the Asturian people

19 hours ago

The DNA of the people of Asturias still maintains the genetic prints of remote ages. A research conducted at the University of Oviedo proves that the old frontiers marked by the pre-Roman Astur settlements have left their ...

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.

More news stories

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.