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Researchers Borrow From Fir Tree to Create Biodiesel

December 12, 2011 - 3:59pm


Rajit Sapar analyzes samples at the Joint BioEnergy Institute's lab. | Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Rajit Sapar analyzes samples at the Joint BioEnergy Institute's lab. | Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

One of the best parts of the season – next to presents of course – is the hint of evergreen in the air. Yet the sweet smell doesn’t last. It fades into forgotten corners, along with unused gift cards.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, researchers at the Office of Science’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have discovered a way to keep a hint of evergreen all year. Thanks to the help of a fir tree, they found a way to create a renewable alternative to diesel fuel.

Specifically, a team of JBEI researchers led by Taek Soon Lee, who directs JBEI’s metabolic engineering program, used genetic engineering to create an advanced alternative to D2 diesel fuel -- better known as “road diesel” since it’s the form of diesel that powers trucks and cars. While most biodiesel fuels currently come from vegetable oil the researchers at JBEI took a different track, and looked at a compound called bisabolane. Researchers hadn’t considered using bisabolane before since it is from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, which are used mostly in perfumes.

However, JBEI researchers demonstrated – for the first time – that bisabolane could serve as a true alternative to D2 diesel. They then tried to make it in the lab by taking a gene from an evergreen, a Grand Fir tree, and inserting it into two different microbes, yeast and E.coli. After a lot of effort, JBEI researchers eventually coaxed those microbes to produce a closely related compound that could easily be converted into a diesel fuel substitute.

Trucks burned through some 22 billion gallons of diesel fuel last year, so any reduction via a renewable fuel would be a real increase for the environment and help streghten our national security by providing a new, domestic fuel source. In addition to being renewable, the fuel JBEI developed is noncorrosive. And when used as a fuel additive, it is likely to provide superior performance for trucks operating in cold weather.

Dr. Lee and his colleagues are now preparing to scale up the bisabolane-making process at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Biofuels Process Demonstration Unit, a 15,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility supported by the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which is designed to move advanced biofuels from the lab to the fueling station.

One day in the not-too-distant future, a massive diesel rig might fill up entirely on JBEI’s renewable fuel. That’ll represent being one step closer to America's energy independence and an improvement for the environment thanks to researchers at the Office of Science. And it’ll be a gift that lasts the year around; a gift of ever-green.