A screening tool from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) eases and greatly quickens one of the thorniest tasks in the biofuels industry: determining cell wall chemistry to find plants with ideal genes.
NREL's new High-Throughput Analytical Pyrolysis tool (HTAP) can thoroughly analyze hundreds of biomass samples a day and give an early look at the genotypes that are most worth pursuing. Analysis of a sample that previously took two weeks can now be done in two minutes. That is potentially game changing for tree nurseries and the biomass industry.
When it comes to making fuels out of trees, crops, grasses, or algae, it's all about the cell walls of the plants. Will they make it hard or easy for enzymes to turn the biomass into sugars? Differences in cell walls are enormous, and choosing the right ones can make the difference between a profit and a loss for tree growers, or between a fruitful or fruitless feedstock line for biomass companies.
Finding that particular species, or that individual tree, that has the genetic markers for the optimal biofuel candidate has heretofore been laborious and painstaking.
HTAP can potentially reduce the amount of energy needed for ethanol production, said NREL's Mark Davis, principal investigator on the HTAP project. And that would make a huge difference in the marketplace.
HTAP has demonstrated extreme powers of discernment. Growers can determine that some of those identical-looking trees are actually a bit different. Using the information that is provided by HTAP, researchers and breeders can determine what genes in the cloned trees are responsible for the advantageous biofuel potential. And biologists then can graft a desirable cell-wall trait onto a new line of trees.
"We've phenotyped tens of thousands of samples so far," Davis said. "The tool provides a detailed comparison of hundreds of samples a day. Any biomass feedstock type being used for serious biofuels production — chances are, we've tested it."
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