Biofuel is one of today’s ecoconscious buzzwords. Recently, however, the most popular biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, are starting to cause their own set of problems. For example, more and more crop land is being devoted to growing corn for fuel instead of food. This has led to a spike in food prices that is being felt around the world. Palm oil, another popular biodiesel fuel, is extracted from palm trees that grow well in places like Brazil. In turn, Brazilian farmers are clearing huge swaths of land for palm plantations, destroying native ecosystems and emitting dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide in the process. A more ideal solution would be to develop or discover a non-food based plant that could also be converted in fuels. That way, we could have our cars and eat our cake, too.

A cooperative effort among Department of Energy researchers and university researchers in Belgium recently made a discovery that is one piece of this environmental puzzle. They found plant-associated microbes that allowed plants to grow in less-than-ideal agricultural conditions, areas contaminated with industrial chemicals or heavy metals, ie: places where regular food crops could never thrive.

The poplar tree places host to these microbes, which, as a form of bacteria, increase biomass and carbon sequestration, allowing these plants not only to grow on dirty soil, but to grow even faster than they normally do. After an extensive lab study to identify the types of bacteria present in the plant samples, scientists identified Enterobacter sp. 638 and Burkholderia cepacia BU72 as the two bacterial endophytes that led to the most rapid growth. To find out how these bacteria stimulate biomass production despite the averse circumstances, researchers examined the genes, where they found plant-growth-promoting hormones among other contributing gene products.

Others are also catching on to the idea of using non-fod plants for biofuel. One oil tycoon, Lord Ronald Oxburgh, has suggested using jatropha, a plant that apparently has as tough an upper lip as its regal proponent. Jatropha, too, grows on degraded land where no other plants will think of putting down their roots. His company, D1 Oil, has already started collecting jatropha oil, and others are hot on his heels. Just last spring a Japanese company agreed to invest $800 million to grow jatropha in Cambodia. The US is in on the trend as well, with companies like GM, DuPont, Range Fuels, and BlueFire Ethanol all opening up or investing in non-food-based fuel plants this year.
In the race for cellulosic ethanol (non-food biofuel), participants are still warming up.

“Actual marketplace production of cellulosic ethanol is zero – there’s not a gallon being produced [commercially] right now,” says Thomas Foust, biofuels research director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “But with all these plants coming on line … by 2010 or 2011 we will start to see millions of gallons.”

Get ready to pull up to the pump folks, and still have some cash left-over for groceries.