Crooked Cultivation Makes Better Biofuel

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There’s something crooked about the best biofuel trees.

Willow trees grown at an angle produced more potential energy in an experiment published in Biotechnology for Biofuels. In the same study, trees grown on the windswept Orkney Islands also produced higher quality fuel wood, with up to five times more energy-rich than sheltered willows.

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When trees have to fight to stay up, they produce more “reaction wood,” according to the study authors from Imperial College London. That reaction wood has sugar molecules that are more easily liberated than from normal wood. Easily released sugar means better firewood. The study provided evidence that genetic variations in the trees made some types more likely to produce reaction wood under adverse conditions.

Growing the trees on the Orkney Islands suggests that difficult environments for other crops  may prove to be best for biofuel plants. Growing biofuel trees in these marginal environments reduces the competition between energy crops and food crops.

Even for wimpy willows grown in pleasant environments, the study authors suggested selective breeding or genetic engineering could increase the amount of reaction wood they produce.

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Please don’t consider my journalism slanted, but I believe that although these warped willows aren’t quite on the level, they might end up being truly upstanding citizens by providing farmers another source of income in regions that are otherwise difficult to cultivate. Planting wind breaks of biofuel trees could also potentially reduce erosion and provide shelter for livestock. These trees also would provide a renewable energy source.

Biofuel trees store carbon from the air in their roots, which are not harvested and burned, hence the use of trees for energy can reduce the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

IMAGE: A willow growing in Spain (Rowanwindwhistler, Wikimedia Commons)

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