Carbon fibre is one of the strongest materials on the plant today and is used in everything from airplane wings to business cards. One plant biologist says that in around 50 years time we’ll be growing it on trees.
With the help of modern high-tech biorefineries and genetics the team at the Biosciences Division at ORNL reckon these plants could be about to transform our civilisation again whilst being carbon neutral.
One-third of the tree’s weight comes from a substance called Lignin, a fibrous polymer that helps strengthen plant cell walls. In the past lignin has been a waste product in the production of ethanol, however with this new process the Scientists can melt it down and either make it into plastic or spin it into carbon fibres.
Carbon fibre made from lignin, like its petroleum-based buddy can be us in a countless number of applications, the real question is whether you can grow trees that yield lignin in the right amounts, with the right properties for various industrial applications. That’s where tree genetics come in.
A lot of what Tuskan’s lab does with poplars is an effort to link the behavior of specific genes to physical traits in the tree. This kind of analysis is called a genome-wide association study or GWAS, which everybody in the field pronounces “gee wass,” like J-Lo for genome geeks. “Basically it’s figuring out the genome’s relationship to the phenotype,” said Tuskan.
Using the poplar tree’s genome the Biosciences team over at ORNL headed up by Gerald Tuskan are isolating genes that control various aspects of the tree’s metabolism. In one instance they were able to start and stop the growth of fungus in poplar tree roots. The idea in future is Farmers could grow a tree designed to have more lignin or less, depending on market demands.
Tuskan’s vision for the future would be poplar tree farms that are genetically engineered to produce lignin that can be used on aircraft parts or the plastic laptop bodies. While speaking with i09 Tuskan said;
Depending on what your customer wants, you might vary or modify the molecular weight of the lignin, chemical engineers and polymer scientists would work with geneticists and plant breeders to target the right combination of genes.
Given the demand for the products that poplars produce Tuskan believes that a perennial tree farm industry could exist in fifty years.