WSU professor welcomes biofuel challenge

If the U.S. is to reduce dependence on imported oil through the expanded the use of clean biofuels as President Bush suggested recently in his State of the Union Address, there’s a bit more work to do, according to John Browse, professor at the WSU Institute for Biological Chemistry.

Although it’s true that you can make biofuel out of many types of plant oil, Browse said using any old oil as fuel for your car or truck can lead to problems. One of his lab’s research focuses, undertaken about six years ago, concerns the production of biodiesel from crop plants.

Oils that are high in the smaller polyunsaturated fats can make a mess in internal combustion engines, he said. Other laboratory studies have also shown that those fats tend to produce nitrous oxide – a harmful component of smog – and diesel made from them is unstable and can clog fuel lines or damage engine parts.

Luckily, some plants do make fats that can work well in your vehicle or have other uses in the chemical industry, he said. One is made by the castor bean plant, and a gene involved in its production has been introduced into Arabadopsis thaliana, the small mustard-family plant that is the plant researchers’ workhorse organism.

The good news is that the Arabadopsis transformed with the castor gene makes the desirable fat. The bad news is that the plant doesn’t make much of it.

“We believe it’s because the plant doesn’t know what to do with the unusual fat,” Browse said.

He and his research group are using three different approaches to try to increase the amount of desirable fat that the transgenic plants make, from the current 17 percent of the oil to as much as 80 or 90 percent. They’ve already managed an almost two-fold increase.

All of this work, as well as the work on the biochemistry of plant membranes, involves using basic science while considering long-term, practical goals. The ultimate aim is to find an industrial partner who will move the technology out of Arabadopsis and into a crop plant such as canola, something that makes sense because it takes a lot of work and a long time to get from a perceived practical application to a marketable product.

It’s taken 25 years of fundamental research on plant oil chemistry in labs like Browse’s to meet the challenge of producing a truly practical and marketable biodiesel product. The first such product should become available relatively soon, he said, in the form of a soybean oil with an altered, healthier oil content. Other products for fuel and other applications can be expected to follow.

“I think the steady progress being made over this 25 year period is an excellent example of how long-term basic research in universities is the engine that drives technology and development in this country and around the world,” Browse said.

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