Campus News

UGA researchers detail how to use poplar trees to make fuel

Robin Buell in laboratory where she studies plant genomics at the University of Georgia

Robin Buell working with plant specimens in her Center for Applied Genetic Technologies laboratory. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Robin Buell, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar Chair in Crop Genomics in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, spoke with Bioenergy Insights about a recent grant to investigate poplar trees as a potential fuel source.

Buell is part of a team of researchers from multiple colleges and programs at UGA, as well as other institutions. They will work together to aim to fabricate new types of poplar tree through genetic modification.

“Currently, there is a growing need for sustainable sources of not only biofuels, but also bioproducts and plant-based materials. Poplars are among the fastest growing trees in the United States and are important for both carbon sequestration and global carbon cycling,” said Buell.

This makes poplar trees a contender for larger scale biofuel manufacturing.

“What we propose is to genetically engineer poplar to make it a multipurpose crop by changing its architecture and engineering it to produce different things in the leaves and wood,” Buell said. “We will generate poplar trees that have different architecture via changing their tree shape and ratio of leaves to wood. For example, we will make a bush like a hydrangea, a tree shaped like an apple tree and a tree like a loblolly pine.”

The team received a $15.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to see if it’s really possible. The grant, awarded over five years, is part of a larger initiative by the DOE to develop bioenergy sources.

“Poplar has been studied for about 15 to 20 years by the Department of Energy as an energy crop,” said Buell. “They are fast-growing trees and there is interest in poplar as a potential biofuel crop and for carbon sequestration. There could be a precursor for jet fuel in the leaves or compounds from the wood to use for polymers that are currently sourced from petroleum.”