Super-Duckweed; Biofuel for Planes, Trains and Heavy Machines
Even the best batteries don’t have the range of fossil fuels, particularly for longer-distance applications such as planes or long-haul trucks. Biofuel made from super-duckweed might be a low-emission solution.
Hydrogen fuel cells may be the future for larger vehicles like ships, but the fuel cells are still too large for most motive applications, and green hydrogen is not available in most of the world. Biofuels are an excellent way to meet the mission when other ways are not viable. Thankfully the United States government is working to improve biofuels, find cleaner sources, and provide help to develop infrastructure.
The US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and its partners at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory have created oil-rich duckweed through genetic engineering, producing copious amounts of oil. Genes were added to induce fatty acid synthesis, which was then stored as oil and maintained. The results show that this new strain can efficiently produce enough oil for biofuel or bioproducts.
Researchers demonstrated how they modified a species of duckweed named Lemna japonica to accumulate oil at a higher percentage of its dry weight, up to a 100-fold improvement over the types growing in the natural environment.
Duckweed is known to grow rapidly, and most of its biomass is in leaf fronds that grow on pond surfaces. This particular strain of duckweed has been engineered to contain a high oil content in the fronds, which means it could be an efficient method of producing renewable and sustainable oil in batches.
Since duckweed does not require nutrient-dense land to flourish, it is an ideal agricultural solution for biofuel. This aquatic plant thrives in poor water quality, specifically in runoff from animal farms, meaning it helps clean up water polluted from agriculture as it grows. It could be used to lightly treat contaminated water while providing producers with a valuable secondary cash crop. Algae blooms in rivers and estuaries could be reduced through the use of duckweed and may soon be a thing of the past.
Researchers discovered three genes involved in oil production in wild duckweed, which they then promoted in the new plant. One gene directs fatty acids, the basic components of petroleum, while another helps merge those fatty acids into triacylglycerols to form hydrocarbons (known as oil), and yet another produces proteins to shield these oil droplets in the plant tissue from destruction.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a $118 million investment in the biofuel sector to promote the production of eco-friendly biofuels. The aim is to stimulate domestic biorefinery growth from a pre-pilot to a demonstration level.
As a result of this opportunity, the DOE can support President Biden’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70% by 2030. With a significantly reduced carbon footprint, biofuels have the potential to power ships, trains, airlines, and heavy-duty vehicles, all of which are significant contributors to total carbon emissions.
The US is beginning to build a domestic bioenergy supply chain that speeds up the adoption of cleaner fuels for transportation, and duckweed biofuel is helping move the process forward.