When it comes to global decarbonisation, the transport sector is a key target for environmentalists and clean energy companies alike – accounting for one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. As global populations and economies grow, so the transport sector will continue to expand – with the International Energy Agency (IEA) saying in its 2020 Energy Technology Perspectives report that global transport will double by 2070. While the IEA warns that reducing emissions in the transport sector would be a ‘formidable task’, advancements in alternative fuel sources are helping shift the sector in a new direction, with solutions such as electric vehicles and biofuels offering cleaner alternatives that are growing in both popularity and scale.
Extracted from abundant sources such as waste materials and crop residues, biofuels have already seen significant uptake in both the road and aviation sectors – boosted by the EU mandate for a tenth of transport fuels to come from renewables by 2020. Yet the increasing demand has led to its own problem – land use. Finding a way to increase crop yields without encroaching on either food crops or natural habitats is a novel challenge, but it is one that may soon have a solution. Researchers from Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Agriculture and the Bioeconomy (CAB) are looking into biotech solutions to make planting bioenergy crops easier, and less invasive on arable land.
Making super crops
Boosting crop resilience is something that has been harnessed in the food industry for years, used to strengthen food security in the face of weather volatility from climate change and rising demand from an expanding global population. Now, this same principle is being applied to bioenergy crops.
According to the International Energy Agency, global biofuel production is forecast to increase 25% by 2024 and with it, so requirements for arable land will similarly rise, with some predictions estimating between 35 million to 54 million hectares of land may be required for biofuel crops by 2030.
Given that the rate of biofuel expansion relies on land availability, the work undertaken at CAB looks to improve crop resilience, allowing for plantations to be located at sites typically hostile to plant life.
Led by Professor Sagadevan Mundree, CAB launched its research project earlier this month alongside Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a US Department of Energy lab. Intended to take place over the next five years, the project will look to make bioenergy crops drought and stress resistant – examining the role of plant microbe interactions in establishing these features, as well as enhancing plant productivity and nutrient acquisition in a bid to make these crops economically competitive with fossil fuels.
Findings from the project are hoped to boost production of the crops and stimulate greater uptake of its use as a renewable fuel. Mundree has been working with improving plant stress tolerance for the past 25 years, though previously this work was harnessed in service of the food industry.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is ensure that, within a certain timeframe, we can switch and use renewable sources of energy,” Mundree says. “Fuels from bioenergy crops may never replace fossil fuel sources but should make up a significant proportion of overall use. This work aims to ensure that the proportion of fuels we use come from renewable sources.”
“We need to keep arable land for growing food so are looking for ways to make bioenergy crops, like sweet sorghum and switchgrass, resilient to the climate conditions and soil quality of small marginal land,” he adds. “Marginal land may be in areas of extreme temperatures or have poor quality soils that are highly saline, acidic and prone to drought. Making plants more resilient to those environmental conditions will improve crop survival and production of feedstocks that we can use for renewable fuels.”
How will it be done?
The team identified features in Australian resurrection grass which, when applied to biofuel crops, would strengthen them against extreme weather conditions.
“Just as people have gut microflora, plants also have this deep microbe interaction where bacteria living within the plant contributes to its wellness, particularly in terms of enhancing stress tolerance, nutrient acquisition, and managing general plant health,” Mundree says.
“We have identified some unique strategies of the native Australian resurrection grass which grows in the outback and can tolerate extreme environmental stress,” he adds. “This plant uses a number of strategies that we could use in our work, and we can advance our understanding of these using PNNL’s capabilities and world-class expertise in plant systems biology, microbiome science and multi-omics measurement technologies.”
If successful, the project would allow farmers to focus their crop production on regions that are as of yet unused, rather than expanding existing plantations and potentially sparking greater loss of land. Indeed, concerns over crop-led deforestation have been rising, with the expansion of soy and palm recently being accused of causing mass deforestation in South America and Southeast Asia. In making biofuel crops tolerant of extreme weather, projects such as Mundree’s would help the biofuels sector to expand without jeopardising protected and vulnerable land.
The work with PNNL is the second partnership between the two institutions, with another collaboration set up in 2017 looking to develop technologies to generate bioenergy and bioproducts from renewable biomass sources.
While technologies developed by researchers such as Mundree cannot alone solve biofuel production challenges, they do provide examples of how we can adapt to meet rising energy demands while keeping land protection in mind. It may be a long road to full biofuel uptake, but the path is clearer thanks to advancements such as these.