Research aimed at next generation of biofuels

February 23, 2009

Research at Penn State Harrisburg aimed at reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil while boosting the state’s agricultural economy is showing early progress and has captured the attention of the biofuels industry.

Assistant professor of biology Sairam V. Rudrabhatla, staff biologist Melanie Kozick, and senior life sciences major Andrew Tran are collaborating in the research project designed to genetically alter the oil-rich jatropha plant, enabling it to flourish in Pennsylvania’s climate.

Mary Seton with Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences calls jatropha an "intriguing contender" for the next generation of plants that can be used for fuel. "The plants stand up to pests and drought and backers say producing biodiesel from jatropha takes half as much energy as using soybeans. The pluses are adding up, but there’s a problem – jatropha grows most comfortably in balmy places like India and Costa Rica."

The goal of the Penn State Harrisburg researchers is to alter the plant so it can withstand Pennsylvania’s sub-freezing winter temperatures while producing its oil-rich seeds year-round. The key is genetic re-engineering.

"We are about to introduce a gene into the plant which we are optimistic will make it impervious to cold temperatures here in the Northeast," Rudrabhatla says. "We are working with other groups in Australia who have the antifreeze gene brought from Antarctica so the plants can grow even at minus 50 degrees Celsius."

Biodiesel production from jatropha is up and running in other parts of the world, with Rudrabhatla adding that the prospects of introducing the plant to Pennsylvania are exciting and numerous. The seeds produce more oil per acre than crops such as corn and soybeans, the plant can grow in poor soil, freeing more productive land for food crops, and is effective as a stream buffer because it reduces erosion and absorbs nitrogen in the soil.

Ben Wootton, president of the Shiremanstown-based Keystone BioFuels, is "passionate" about the project. "The prospects for this research are huge," he says. "Jatropha puts out much more oil than soybeans or corn and can be grown on marginal lands. It’s a win-win situation. When the food vs. fuel debate comes – and it will – jatropha could be leading the way in biofuel development while not taking away from food commodities."

The airline industry in particular is casting an optimistic eye toward jatropha as a source of biofuel. Recent test two-hour flights conducted by Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines saw an engine of a Boeing 747 successfully run on a 50:50 mixture of jet fuel and oil created from jatropha, utilizing the alternative energy source and reducing the arilines’ carbon footprint. Air New Zealand has also announced plans to use the biofuel for 10 percent of its needs by 2013.

Rudrabhatla and his research partners will first subject the genetically altered plants to a refrigeration test this spring and then plan outdoor field testing next year. "The Milton Hershey School has generously provided space in its greenhouses for us to grow the plants and will be committing farmland for the outdoor test plots. In return, Penn State Harrisburg will be offering educational opportunities for Milton Hershey School students in plant biotechnology here on campus."

Kozick points out that jatropha seeds produce 10 times more oil than corn and four times more than soybeans, and nothing is wasted. "Even the seed cake – the material left after the seeds are crushed to extract the oil – is a great organic fertilizer and the residue from the plant can also be processed into biomass to power plants producing electricity."

Tran, a native of Schuylkill County, praises Penn State Harrisburg’s commitment "to involve students in cutting-edge research projects with faculty that are practical and can provide direct benefit to the quality of life in the region." He adds, "It’s been a real learning experience to be working on a project that involves new research. It’s all new; we started from scratch and it’s very exciting. I am very optimistic about the prospects for jatropha, both for the biofuels industry and Pennsylvania agriculture." Tran, who grew up on a Pittman farm and currently works at a dairy operation, assesses the value of the plant in Pennsylvania by pointing out, "It could become a staple in farmer’s profit margins."


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Last Updated May 18, 2012