The eucalyptus tree, native to Australia and home to the koala bear, is the gift that keeps on giving as the trees help produce biofuels and biomaterials.
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, the effort of more than 80 researchers from 30 institutions and 18 countries, has summarized numerous ways in which eucalyptus trees can help produce biofuels and biomaterials in a sustainable way, and biomass that does not compete with native food crops.
Eucalyptus trees are found in approximately 100 countries over six continents. They are popular for the quality of their wood and fiber, fast growth rate and adaptability. The eucalyptus tree's leaves are food for bears and it has the ability to be grown just about anywhere.
Researchers looking for the best and brightest of the more than 36,000 genes found in the eucalyptus tree zeroed in on genes that could produce secondary cell wall material that can be used in pulp, paper, biomaterials and bioenergy production. As an additional benefit, harvesting these easily renewable properties can mitigate pressures on native forests.
Eucalyptus trees also capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide in their limbs, providing additional environmental benefit. They are considered a major source of terrestrial carbon that does not get released into the environment.
The biofuel that eucalyptus trees can produce could be critical as a renewable energy source, as science increasingly seeks alternatives to fossil fuels. Biofuels such as ethanol are already in use, produced from sugar or starch crops such as corn and sugarcane. Biodiesel is produced from organic oils and fats. Both biodiesel and ethanol are only used commercially as fuel additives at this point.
Biomass refers to material comprised of living organisms. For energy purposes, it is most often plant-based matter. Biomass is part of the carbon cycle -- plants take in carbon from the atmosphere, and release it as they are burned.
The potential importance of harnessing the renewable energy-producing properties of eucalyptus trees was expressed by one of the researchers, Alexander Myburg of the University of Pretoria in South Africa. The study was published in the journal Nature.
"A major challenge for achieving a sustainable energy future is our understanding of the molecular basis of superior growth and adaptation in woody plants suitable for biomass production," Myburg said.