Each of those activities is dependent on oil, from fuel for transport to the plastic parts of your kettle, car, keyboard and mobile. Development of our high-impact consumer lifestyles is accelerating even as fossil fuel supplies are dwindling, and the environmental impact of their use becomes ever more apparent.
But plants, rather than fossil fuels, can provide our future energy, fuel and a whole range of renewable products. Today an international group of scientists working under the EPOBIO project has released its first series of reports on the endless possibilities of plants. EPOBIO -- "Economic Potential of Sustainable Resources, Bioproducts from Non-food Crops" -- is a major research initiative supported by the European European Commission under the Sixth RTD Framework Programme together with the United States Department of Agriculture.
The renewable revolution
Plants offer a sustainable tool to achieve the renewable revolution. They are 'green factories' using energy from sunlight to make biofuel, bioplastics and a range of other products cheaply and in large quantities. The reports, issued today by the EPOBIO project, present detailed analyses of how plant products and plants themselves can be used to replace products made using oil.
"Two key threats to society are our dependence on finite fossil fuels and climate change. Plants have the potential to provide us with everything now made using petroleum, creating a sustainable society for the future and addressing immediate concerns such as energy costs, security of supply and our impact on the environment." - EPOBIO co-ordinator Professor Dianna Bowles.The project focuses on three ‘flagship’ areas - biopolymers, plant oils and the use of plant cell walls in biorefining. These areas have been identified as offering the greatest benefit to society which could be achieved in as little as 10-15 years time. The EPOBIO reports combine detailed scientific, technical, economic and environmental analyses of the potential of non-food crops to provide alternative sources of natural rubber, lubricants and industrial feedstocks.
1. Biopolymers, with a primary focus on the need for alternative sources of natural rubber (flagship report: Alternative sources of natural rubber - *.pdf):
- natural rubber is a strategic commodity, irreplaceable by synthetic alternatives, for many of its applications, e.g. heavy duty tyres for SUVs, trucks and aeroplanes.
- the incidence of allergic reactions to proteins in natural rubber (latex) is increasing. Natural rubber is used to make protective medical products, posing a potential risk to both patients and medical workers.
- the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is at risk from a fungal disease which has already decimated large-scale rubber production in South America.
- predictions of future shortages in supply.
2. The potential of using plants as an energy supply (flagship report: Cell wall saccarification - *.pdf):
* biofuels, power, chemicals, materials and fibres can be all made from plants rather than oil in integrated processing systems called biorefineries.
* the use of plant material reduces greenhouse gas emissions while guaranteeing security of supply.
* the plant material and processing method needs to be optimised to increase yield and quality of the end products and reduce energy and chemical inputs.
3. The potential of producing lubricants from plants (flagship report: Production of wax esters in Crambe - *.pdf):
* plant oils have similar structures and properties to mineral oils and can be used in many of the applications now dependent on mineral oils.
* wax esters have excellent properties as lubricants but their use has previously been limited by the high cost of extraction from jojoba seeds.
* the low cost production of wax esters from the non-food oil crop Crambe abyssinica will provide a sustainable supply of lubricants to use in engine, transmission and hydraulic fluids.
The EPOBIO project involves a partnership between experts in plant science, environmental impact assessment, economic and social analysis and combines these strengths to identify the plant-based products which offer greatest benefit to society within the next 10-15 years.
EPOBIO stands for "realising the Economic POtential of sustainable resources - BIOproducts from Non-Food Crops." EPOBIO is an international project to realise the economic potential of plant-derived raw materials and establish the priorities for bioscience research in order to deliver bio-based products for the market place in 10-15 years. The EPOBIO project involves a consortium of 12 European and US partners and is led by the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York, UK. The project is funded as part of the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, receiving just under £1million, with cooperation from the United States Department of Agriculture.
CNAP, the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, is a research centre in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was established through a benefaction from the Garfield Weston Foundation and funding from UK Government. The Centre was awarded a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2006. The aim of CNAP's research is to realise the potential of plant- and microbial-based renewable resources through gene discovery to make products needed by society. CNAP research in plant and microbial sciences is supported by the UK Research Councils, particularly the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), as well as the DTI and DEFRA, and funding from European and US organisations.
EPOBIO overview: Realising the Economic Potential of Sustainable Resources – Bioproducts from Non-food Crops
EPOBIO first reports release.
University of York: Plant potential in the pipeline - Nov. 23, 2006