Researcher looks for energy answers

Growing our own fuel isn’t a new idea, but one Carleton professor is looking at ways to do it without affecting the world’s food supply while also helping to stimulate a flat-lined economy.

Rather than diverting corn, soybeans and sugar away from people’s dinner plates, Owen Rowland, an assistant biology professor, wants to grow tasteless crops genetically designed for industrial purposes.

“We need to both utilize waste and look at the management of our agricultural system to really test and make sure we can generate energy and industrial products without affecting food production,” he says.

A 2008 report by the United Nations Economic and Social Council highlighted the fact that the recent increase in biofuel production was linked to rising food prices and was contributing to a global food crisis.

To compound the problem, says Rowland, most biofuels aren’t that environmentally friendly; growing food and then converting it into fuel requires a lot of energy – often including the burning of fossil fuels like natural gas. It doesn’t make sense to turn around and burn it.

“It’s easiest to take a food crop . . . and convert it into fuel because we’re already growing it. But ultimately that’s not a renewable and sustainable approach.”

As part of his environment-friendly research, Rowland is studying the cuticles of plants to learn about naturally occurring chemicals – the kind that might help weed out harmful, synthetic products on the market. For example, a popular wood finishing product in China, called tung oil, occurs naturally in the nuts of tung trees.

“If we can understand how it’s made, we could combine different combinations of the enzyme into a novel industrial oil seed crop that would be used as a platform to make oils,” says Rowland. “There’s a lot of different opportunities in using plant biomass.”

Another opportunity might be in selecting enzymes to break down agricultural waste like corn husks and straw into their basic sugars – which can then be used to make products like ethanol, he notes.

“By identifying microbes that will ferment different products, that will let you end up with different fuels or different platform chemicals to make different products,” adds Rowland.

With vast stretches of farmland and the availability of government labs, Rowland thinks Canada could lead the way and even design an economical, “plant-based economy” model for rapidly developing countries like China and India.

“We’re a fairly small country but we have the education and the technology to actually be world leaders in this,” he says. “It’s one of the most important things human society has to face in this century.”

As the Canadian economy sinks into the red, there’s no better time to make a change to green, argues Rowland.

“It is an opportunity to kind of shift the way we do a lot of (things).”

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