Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Unlocking the biofuel energy stored in plant cell walls

By virtue of their chloroplasts, plants are superb harvesters of solar energy. They use it to build leaves, flowers, fruits, stems, and roots. We harvest a small percentage of that energy in the form of food and a smaller amount in the form of wood for heating.

But the vast majority of plant biomass goes unused by us. In every agricultural region on Earth, huge amounts of the structural parts of crops -- things like cornstalks, sugar canes, beanstalks, and wheat stems -- are discarded because we haven't figured out a way to convert them into fuel.

Plant scientist Daniel Cosgrove, who has devoted decades to studying the cell walls that make plant matter resistant to chemical conversion, thinks it doesn't have to be that way.

Given the scale of our need for energy and the size of that untapped, renewable resource, he says, "plant cell walls are the obvious target."

Unlocking plant energy

We are expert at using the structural parts of plants to make things -- wood for buildings and furniture, flax and cotton for clothing -- but when it comes to using them for energy, we haven't progressed much beyond the Neanderthal stage: We burn them.

Read the full story at Penn State News: