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Proteomic research has uncovered a whopping 1,750 unique proteins in switchgrass, clearing a new path for then development of next generation biofuel.


1,750 Reasons Not To Ditch Your Old Gasmobile

Proteomic research has uncovered a whopping 1,750 unique proteins in switchgrass, clearing a new path for then development of next generation biofuel.

As much as we’re excited over electric vehicles, the fact is that petroleum is going to continue to be the fuel of choice for tens of millions of US drivers into the coming several years (at least) — unless more and better biofuels start hitting the market very quickly. We have to admit we’ve been neglecting the biofuel angle lately, so now is a good time to catch up on the latest developments.

switchgrass biofuel

Sharing The Road With Tens Of Millions Of Gasmobiles

Before we get to those latest biofuel developments, here are some figures to chew on. Last summer our friends over at reported that there were 252,700,000 light vehicles in operation in the US. The average age came out at 11.4 years and foresees a slow but steady uptick to 11.7 years by 2019. The slight increase in longevity will be largely due to improvements in quality, as well as consumers holding on to older cars longer for financial reasons

When you break it down by category, the oldest group (12+ years) is expected to grow 15% by 2019.

So, until the cost of a new electric vehicle comes way down, it’s a safe bet that you’re going to see plenty of gasmobiles out and about long after EVs have penetrated the upper income brackets of the personal mobility market.

Let’s also throw in the idea that at least for the near future, coal and natural gas will continue to be a major part of the grid mix, and EV owners who charge up from the grids will be driving at least partly on fossil fuel power.

Pick your poison, fossil fuels or biofuels….

Group Hug For More And Better Biofuels

That brings us to the latest biofuel news and the group hug, too. A while back the Obama Administration launched the Joint Biofuel Institute (JBEI), which is tasked with finding ways to convert non-food biomass into biofuels that — unlike the demon seed, ethanol — can be substituted on a drop-in basis for petroleum fuel. So, group hug for us taxpayers!

One of the projects we’ve noticed from JBEI involves a strain of E. coli bacteria found in the soil of Puerto Rico, but this new one is a little more down to earth: it involves our old biofuel pal, switchgrass.


What has the folks at JBEI really excited is the field of proteomics, which actually has its own scientific journals, such as the Journal of Proteome Research.

Think genomics and now you know who to blame for proteomics. According to our friends over at Mollecular and Cellular Proteomics, once you unravel genome sequences, now you have to codify the structure, function, and expression of the proteins they encode.

So, in the latest proteomics development, JBEI researchers have identified 1,750 unique proteins in switchgrass.

You can get all of the details in the journal Proteomics under the title “Proteome profile of the endomembrane of developing coleoptiles from switchgrass (Panicum virgatum),” but for those of you on the go, the basic idea is that applying proteomics to biofuel development offers a quicker and more effective pathway to modifying strains of switchgrass for optimum biofuel development — like “finding a needle in a haystack,” as JBEI researchers put it.

The Death Of Ethanol

As for why we’re calling corn ethanol the demon seed, you can Google it but JBEI offers a somewhat less colorful reasoning behind the switch to other biofuels (breaks added for readability):

The most widely used biofuel today is ethanol, a two-carbon alcohol whose carbon-oxygen bonds yield only about 70-percent of the energy per volume of gasoline’s hydrocarbon bonds. Advanced biofuels are oil-like hydrocarbons, such as the four-carbon alcohol butanol, that yield almost the same amount of energy per volume as gasoline.

Unlike ethanol, advanced biofuels can replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuels on a gallon-for-gallon basis in today’s combustion engines with no loss of performance.

Also unlike ethanol, which absorbs water that corrodes pipelines, advanced biofuels can be used in today’s supply and delivery infrastructures.

With that in mind, you can also check out another new biofuel development that our friends over at Green Car Congress spotted a couple of days ago:

A team at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) at China Lake has produced 100% bio-derived high-density renewable diesel and jet fuels by blending multicyclic sesquiterpanes with a synthetic paraffinic kerosene (5-methylundecane). The resulting renewable fuels have densities and net heats of combustion higher than petroleum-based fuels while maintaining cetane numbers high enough (between 45 and 57) for use in conventional diesel engines.

In case you’re wondering, sesquiterpanes are naturally occurring organic compounds, composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms in complex structures — just the sort of thing that biofuel researchers love to tinker around with.

That’s the tip of the biofuel iceberg when it comes to the US Navy. They’ve also been messing around with chicken fat, algae, and municipal solid waste.

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Photo credit: Switchgrass, courtesy of US Department of Energy.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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