Crooked willows make better fuel

Crooked willows make better fuel

willow trial

Willows undere research conditions in Imperial’s Grodome facility in South Kensington

There’s always something in nature to amaze and a new study has shown that willows which grow at a diagonal are much better for biofuel production than willow trees that are left to grow normally. The difference can be substantial with the crooked tree producing 5 times more bio-fuel than their more straight cousins.

While it has been observed in the field and in plantations that crooked willow trees were more effective for fuel making the recent study by Imperial College London has discovered why.

When trees are subject to wind and are blown at an angle some tree have a genetic make up which allows them to produce strengthening sugars which try and make the tree grow straight again. These sugars boost  the amount of biofuel that can be released from the tree. [pullquote]This is an important breakthrough, our study now shows that natural genetic variations are responsible for these differences and this could well be the key to unlocking the future for sustainable bioenergy from willow.[/pullquote]

Willow is widely planted across the UK and used for the production of biofuels – either for vehicles or heating oil – but it is still not as cost effective as fossil fuels. Being able to boost the amount of useful biofuel from the tree would make it much more affordable as a sustainable replacement.

The researchers think that it will be possible over time to replace willow plantations with willows that contain the sugar producing gene.

The study was led by Dr Nicholas Brereton and Dr Michael Ray, both from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, who worked with researchers at Rothamsted Research, and the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Agronomy Institute (at Orkney College UHI). The study is published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels.

Dr Brereton said: “We’ve known for some time that environmental stresses can cause trees to naturally develop a slightly modified ‘reaction wood’ and that it can be easier to release sugars from this wood. This is an important breakthrough, our study now shows that natural genetic variations are responsible for these differences and this could well be the key to unlocking the future for sustainable bioenergy from willow.”

The study looked at  the amount of sugars present in willow trees that were grown in lab conditions at a 45 degree angle and natural trees from the Orkneys where wind strengths means many trees are bent at severe angles. The sugar content of these two types of trees were then compared with trees that had a more normal skyward growth in sheltered conditions. The difference was substantial with as much as 5 times more sugars being released from the crooked trees.

Dr Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research who leads the BBSRC-funded BSBEC-BioMASS project said “We are very excited about these results because they show that some willows respond more to environmental stresses, such as strong winds, by changing the composition of their wood in ways that are useful to us. As breeders this is good news because it means we could improve willow by selecting these types from the huge diversity in our collections”.

External sites:

Imperial College London: Wind in the willows boosts biofuel production.