In Tennessee, turning trees, grass, and other biomass into fuel for automobiles and airplanes is a costly and complex process. Biofuel researchers are working to change that, envisioning a future where cellulosic ethanol, an alcohol derived from plant sugars, is as common and affordable at the gas station as gasoline.
The key to making this vision a reality? Unraveling the tightly wound network of molecules—cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin—that make up the cell wall of plants for easier biofuel processing.
Using high-performance computing, a group of researchers at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) provided insight into how this might be accomplished, simulating a well-established genetic modification to the lignin of an aspen tree in atomic-level detail. The team’s conclusion—that hydrophobic, or water repelling, lignin binds less with hydrophilic, or water attracting, hemicellulose—points researchers toward a promising way to engineer better plants for biofuel. Their results were published in the November 2014 edition of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.