In Indiana, we grow a lot of corn for gasoline, but plants like switchgrass and sorghum can be used for fuel too — and producing those fuels creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
But those plants can also be harder to break down. Researchers at Purdue University say they’ve found easier ways of doing it.
The thing that makes woody plants woody is also what makes them hard to turn into fuel — a compound called lignin.
But Purdue University researchers have found a way to use genetics to weaken lignin’s bonds in poplar trees. They also developed a process to extract lignin without harming the parts of the plant needed for fuel.
Purdue biological sciences professor Maureen McCann says these methods could open up more possibilities to use other types of plants like sorghum.
“It’s just much more efficient to be able to use the whole body of the plant rather than simply the corn kernel or the grain,” she says.
Even when using more than just the grains of the corn plant, Carpita says sorghum can produce ten times as much biomass per acre as corn.
What's more, once the lignin has been extracted, it can be used for other things like fragrances, flavorings, or even a new kind of plastic.
“It’s made lignin a product rather than a problem,” says Purdue plant biologist Nick Carpita.
Purdue researchers say there’s still more work to do to make woody plants into fuel more easily and make that fuel cheap enough to compete with gasoline.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.