April 26, 2013

Changing cellulose-forming process may tap plants' biofuel potential

Changing the way a plant forms cellulose may lead to more efficient, less expensive biofuel production, according to Penn State engineers.

"What every biofuel manufacturer wants to do is to get to the sugars," said Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. "But the structure of cellulose itself can be an obstacle."

Catchmark said that most of a plant's sugar-based energy is locked up in the crystalline structure of cellulose. To make cellulose, plants create long chains of sugar -- glucose -- that are then crystallized and densely packed into tight, ordered bundles resistant to water and other solvents. This bundling may help build strong plant cell walls, but biofuel makers must use extra effort to break down and separate the bundles and the crystalline cellulose to extract the sugars used to ferment fuels.