Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory hope a new federal grant will help them turn plants into fuel. The Department of Energy announced this week that it's providing $12 million next year to the lab in East Tennessee, with the potential for more than $100 million over the next five years.
Plant-based fuel research already exists: Ethanol available at gas stations is made from corn. But researchers like geneticist Jerry Tuskan are looking at the next generation of biofuel for plants that are more efficient producers of energy.
"Our plants of choice are poplar, which is the fastest-growing tree in the Northern hemisphere, and switchgrass, which is a native-growing perennial prairie grass," he said.
Tuskan and his colleagues are working on identifying which genes within these plants are responsible for different traits. Then they'll create a hybrid that is the easiest to grow and has the best qualities to be converted into butenol-based fuel — for example, optimizing its disease resistance and water efficiency.
"I believe we're going to make significant progress as a result of this investment," Tuskan said. "The ultimate goal of our endeavor is to drop the cost of butenol to somewhere around a dollar a gallon."
But even if they figure out how to create cheap, effective biofuel, Tuskan said it still might not be economically competitive with other forms, like petroleum or natural gas.
The Department of Energy is also funding similar research at three other institutions: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.