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Imperial researchers to help develop new 'green' fuel sources

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Life scientists receive part of UK's largest ever public investment in bioenergy<em> - News</em>

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By Danielle Reeves
Tuesday 27 January 2009

Imperial College London life scientists working on new sustainable and efficient ways of using plants to create biofuels are part of a new £27 million national research centre announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) today.

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre has been launched to provide the science to underpin and develop the important and emerging UK sustainable bioenergy sector – and to replace the petrol in our cars with fuels derived from plants.

The Imperial researchers receiving new funding as part of the BBSRC's Centre are led by Dr Richard Murphy and Dr Thorsten Hamann in the Department of Life Sciences. Both researchers' work focuses on the sugars found in plant cell walls. Accessing the cell wall sugars, which can be used to make biofuels like ethanol to burn in car engines, is vital if researchers are to maximise the usefulness of plants for making fuels.

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A researcher harvests short rotation coppiced willow (genus Salix) for genetic and compositional analysis

This is a difficult task because the sugars are locked tight inside the cell walls, which have evolved to be tough, sturdy and strong enough to keep plants upright during storms and resist pathogen infections and other environmental stresses. Accessing increasing amounts of the potential energy stored inside cell walls is one of the key challenges facing bioenergy researchers today.

Dr Murphy's research will be carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Rothamsted Research and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, and Cambridge University. It will focus on analysing the different sugars and other compounds that are found in the cell walls of bioenergy crops important for the UK, such as fast-growing willows and Miscanthus, a giant grass. Improving biofuel production from these plants is a priority because they can grow on marginal land and require few agricultural inputs like fertilisers. Furthermore, because they are not food crops, using them for fuel does not take products out of the food chain.

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Understanding which sugars are found in different plants' cell walls is important because some sugars are easier to extract than others. Dr Murphy explains:

"We're looking to pin down which of these crops are the best for producing biofuels, and an important element of this is finding out which genotypes give us easier access to their cell wall sugars. Building up a detailed picture of cell wall composition in different varieties and species will help us to identify the best targets for bioenergy production."

Dr Hamann's research involves identifying key genes associated with the plant characteristics that influence the efficiency of biofuel production. One of these characteristics is, for example, the ease with which sugars can be released from the plant cell wall during the production process.

In the lab, Dr Hamann and his colleagues use a small, fast-growing model plant called Arabidopsis, the full genome of which has been sequenced, to pinpoint which genes are most important for biofuel production. Using this information they then hope to use the corresponding genes in crops to facilitate bioenergy production.

Working with colleagues at Rothamsted, the largest agricultural research centre in the UK, Dr Hamann aims to transfer discoveries made in the lab to the field. He says:

"Working with Rothamsted gives us unrivalled access to field experiments in which we can validate the discoveries we make in the lab. This should ensure the smooth and speedy translation of fundamental science into workable solutions for biofuels in the UK and Europe."

Imperial's application for the new BBSRC funding was facilitated by the Porter Alliance, which combines the College's research into bioenergy with that of colleagues at Rothamsted, IBERS, the John Innes Centre, Cambridge, Southampton and York. Imperial's work as part of the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre will draw on research strengths from across the College's Departments of Life Sciences, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and the Centre for Environmental Policy.

Professor Richard Templer, Director of the Porter Alliance said: "I am delighted that members of the Alliance are partners in the BBSRC's vision for a UK-wide bioenergy centre. Developing the science for sustainable biofuels is a key element in reducing the carbon footprint of our transport system. To get to the right solutions will be tough and will require the contribution of all branches of science and engineering, so a multidisciplinary, nationwide approach such as this is an extremely important first step."

Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, added: "Investing £27 million in this new centre involves the single biggest UK public investment in bioenergy research. The centre is exactly the sort of initiative this country needs to lead the way in transforming the exciting potential of sustainable biofuels into a widespread technology that can replace fossil fuels.

"The expertise and resources of Imperial College London makes it well placed to make a valuable contribution to the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre and help to make sustainable, environmentally-friendly bioenergy a reality."

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