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Published on August 1st, 2010 | by Tina Casey


A "Manhattan Project" for Zinnias Yields a Key to Cheaper Biofuels

August 1st, 2010 by  

scientists unlock biofuel secrets of zinnia cellsThe common zinnia flower may play a key role in transforming the U.S. from a country under siege from high risk fossil fuels, to a nation powered by cleaner, safer biofuels from renewable sources. Scientists working in collaboration from three national laboratories have used four different kinds of imaging systems to get a molecular-level look into the structure of individual zinnia leaf cells.  The breakthrough will speed further research into more efficient methods for breaking down the woody matter in plants, in order to unlock the sugars that can be processed into biofuels.


The collaboration involved the Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories along with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Combined with new federal investments in solar energy and high tech alternative fuels research, this pull-out-all-stops approach to biofuels is another indication that the Obama administration recognizes the serious threat that continued dependence on fossil fuels poses to the health and security of the U.S.

Zinnia Cells and Biofuels

There are two major stumbling blocks to mass-market adoption of biofuels.  One is the need to balance cropland for fuel with cropland for food.  A partial solution would be to use woody, non-food plants for biofuel, or even plant waste biomass for biofuel.  However, this runs into the second stumbling block, which is the difficulty in breaking down plant cell walls in order to get at the good stuff for making biofuel. The zinnia research achieved a detailed molecular picture of the organization of plant cell walls, along with its chemical composition.  This provides researchers with an efficient means for evaluating the reaction of different plants to different chemicals and bioprocesses, which in turn provides a crucial stepping stone for developing more cost-effective biofuel production methods.

A Safer Road to Cheaper Biofuels

The new research will help overcome a third biofuel stumbling block, and that is reducing or eliminating the use of harsh chemicals in the production process.  Work in this area is already progressing on a number of different fronts.  Over at the University of North Carolina, for example, researchers have discovered that exposure to gaseous ozone can break down lignin (the substance that puts the “wood” in woody cell walls), without the need for other chemicals.  This process also eliminates the liquid and solid wasete involved in conventional chemical-based biofuel production, leading to a more cost effective process.

Image: Zinnia by Trinity on flickr.com. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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