Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Biofuels Prospect "Duckweed" Doubles Biomass in 48 hours

Duckweed produces a enormous amount of starch-rich biomass every 48 hours. Scientists are studying the plant to convert it into a bio-manufacturing platform, for the production of polymers, proteins, and high value small molecule chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Other scientists -- biofuels specialists -- are attempting to transfer genes from algae to duckweed in an effort to teach the rapid-growing plant to produce oils for biofuels.
"We’re interested in using or optimizing duckweed for use as a biomass bio fuel based on its ability to grow on waste water and water in places which you would never imagine crops would grow," Martienssen tells Big Think.

In other words, Martienssen calls duckweed "an exciting prospect" because it can kill two birds with one stone. "It can convert high nitrogen and high phosphorus water into much cleaner water and at the same time massively increase in biomass," Martienssen says. Duckweed doubles in size every two [days __ ed.], generating a huge amount of biomass in a short amount of time, and is an amazing producer of starch.

Therefore, using pathways and genes from algae, Martienssen says he is looking to "persuade" duckweed "to make oil instead of starch."

...How exactly is Martienssen hoping to 'persuade' duckweed to produce oil? He is looking at the phenotype, or the properties of the plant over generations, to which Martienssen has applied his groundbreaking research on transposons or "jumping genes."

Transposons were discovered in plants about sixty years ago by Martienssen's Cold Spring Harbor Lab colleague Barbara McClintock who won the Nobel Prize for this discovery. According to Martienssen, "transposons are pieces of DNA that can move around the genome and cause genetic as well as epigenetic changes without having to go through a sexual cross and so many of the changes we see that happen in clones occur due to the activity of transposable elements." _BigThink
Most energy specialists underestimate biomass fuels, because their thinking is years or decades old. The potential for production of sheer biomass by duckweed and rapid-growing micro- and macro-algae has barely begun to be tapped.

Using the tools of genetic and epi-genetic modification, rapid-growing plants are likely to stand in for the mythical "nanotech assembler" for manufacturing a wide range of products -- at least for the next few decades until nanotech molecular assemblers can be perfected. Fuels and high value chemicals are likely to be two of the product categories which fast growing plants will be persuaded to make.

This is a biological planet. The biological plant life of this planet thrives on high CO2 levels -- up to 3X to 4X higher than at present.
CO2 is essential to photosynthesis and thus it must be present in the air at least in at least 300 ppm in order for plants to grow properly. When CO2 is deficient in the air plants simply do not grow, their growth is very slow and stunted. It is also actually possible to speed plant growth up by increasing CO2 levels in the air. The simple addition of CO2 to the air is as good as adding fertilizer to your plants. Most plants grow with a yield increase of ten to thirty percent when the CO2 levels are between 1,200 to 1,500 parts per million. _Source
If, on the other hand, atmospheric levels of CO2 were reduced by half, large numbers of species of plants would die, and the food chain would be severely disrupted. Billions of humans would be in danger of starving.

Clearly, humans will not replace hydrocarbon fuels with biofuels -- and there is no need to even try. But biomass can be grown virtually anywhere there is energy, nutrients, and CO2 -- and be converted to biofuels. That advantage of local and regional production virtually anywhere in the inner solar system, is something that no other fuel can match.

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