Imagine a grass crop, grown on marginal, non-food bearing land without pesticides or much fertilizer, that, when harvested, produces an oil that needs almost no processing to be substituted for diesel fuel.
Much attention has been given to producing ethanol from non-food crops like grasses, but the ability to produce something indistinguishable to diesel from grass could be a game-changer. It would require almost no infrastructure change and could fuel all of the existing long-haul trucks on the road without modification.
Chhandak Basu, a researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, has received a grant to study the feasibility of taking the oil-producing genes from the tropical copaiba tree, also known as the “diesel tree,” and inserting them into other types of plants, like grasses, to induce those plants to produce the diesel-like oleoresin.
“The agricultural aspects of oleoresin have been studied extensively, but not the molecular biology part, not the genes responsible for this type of synthesis,” Basu said.
Oleoresin has been known for a long time to be easily substituted for diesel fuel, and the copaiba tree produces copious amounts of these oleoresins — each tree producing 40 liters per year.
The problem is that trees grow relatively slowly and the copaiba tree requires a tropical environment to flourish. A wholesale shift of large portions of the tropics to growing monocultures of these trees could have a devastating effect on tropical habitats and global warming through deforestation.
To get around this, Mr. Basu suggests that genetically modifying other types of plants to do the same thing that copaiba trees do could be part of the solution to attaining energy independence.
“This can be a tool in the toolbox,” Basu said of his research. “There’s so much wealth in this country that we should find a homegrown solution to address energy concerns. And if I’m successful here, we can spread the technology to the developing nations.”
The whole idea of a grass that produces diesel fuel is pretty cool — enough so that I’m a bit skeptical. Right now it’s just an idea on paper, but after thinking it over, the basic concept seems feasible to me.
The real sticking point is not the actual genetic modification, but the potential for cross-contamination of other types of grasses and related plants through wind-blown pollen. Once that gene is out in the environment, there’s no getting it back into a contained state.
If this issue can be addressed, a whole host of other genetic modifications for increasing biofuel production from grasses could also be implemented in the future.