There’s a new study out from some fellow California scientists that have calculated that it’s much more productive and better for the planet to use energy crops to produce electricity to run electric cars vs converting it to ethanol for fuel. If this finding becomes policy, a lot of the work devoted to fine tuning plants to be more efficiently digested into ethanol is going to be bypassed. (Optimizing cell wall structure and make up (cellulose is good, lignin is bad), engineering plants to produce the very enzymes needed to digest them into ethanol.) Now it isn’t certain that such a change will take place, but this report, like many others before it, reminds us that there is a significant argument for why a change in priorities could happen.
Changes in the methods pursued to create biofuels are likely to change a number of times as our nation attempts to scale back its dependence on fossil fuels. And it can really suck both emotionally and career wise to be invested in a branch of research that ends up appearing superfluous. So all things being equal, when deciding on an area of research to write a grant for, or what lab to join, or what projects to fund, remember TAMBITAM (Twice as much biomass is twice as much!). Meaning whatever method is deployed to convert plants into energy, the more biomass we can produce on the a given amount of land, with the same inputs, the more energy we’ll produce. If tomorrow I discover a mutation that makes switchgrass grow twice as big*, that’s a great discovery that doesn’t hinge on its applications to a single technological process.
*Realistically these are more likely to be genes that increase water or nitrogen use efficiency or that change the partitioning of resources between vegetative and reproductive growth. (Something we can already do with flowering time mutants or growing tropical lines at higher latitudes where the day length doesn’t trigger flowering until much later in the year.)