story to find out more.
Devine measures one of his large biomass soybean plants selected for fiber and
ethanol production. Click the image for more information about
Breeding Soybeans for Ethanol and
Fiberboard By Don
Comis November 22, 2006
Having successfully turned pieces of giant soybean stalks into
charcoal briquettes, Agricultural Research
Service chemical engineer
Barone now believes they would make good fiberboard and other
wood-substitute products as well. ARS geneticist
E. Devine took the plants to Barone after noticing they had a rare ability
to stand up straight all season, despite their unusual height of up to 7 feet.
Soybean plants often lodgefall downas they grow taller.
Barone is with the ARS
Management and Byproduct Utilization Laboratory, and Devine is with the ARS
Agricultural Systems Laboratory, both in Beltsville, Md.
Devine suspected one reason the experimental line of soybeans stood so
straight all season was because the cellulose fibers in their sapling-like
stalks were unusually strong.
Barone's heat-measurement test supports this: A piece of the stalk
takes as long to heat up as a sturdy 2x4 pine board.
Barone hopes to design a test that plant breeders can use to determine
the strength or weakness of a plant's cellulose. Plants could be specially bred
with strong cellulose, for use in briquettes and wood substitutes, or with weak
cellulose better suited for cellulosic ethanol production.
Finding new microbial enzymes to break down tough cellulose is a major
obstacle to producing cellulosic ethanol from plants such as soybeans or corn.
Giving breeders a test for weak cellulose would allow them to select plants
with cellulose that could be easily converted to ethanol by existing enzymes.
Devine and agronomist James McMurtrey (recently retired from ARS) found
evidence for this two years ago, in a study showing that naturally occurring
soil microbes degraded some soybean stalks more rapidly than others.
Soybeans have an advantage over corn and other crops because they
don't need commercial nitrogen fertilizer. This helps ensure that producing
ethanol or other products from soybeans uses less energy.
details, see the November-December 2006 issue of Agricultural
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agricultures chief scientific research agency.