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Tappable Pine Trees

University of Florida

Commercial Production of Terpene Biofuels in Pine

Graphic of Florida's technology
Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$7,017,225
Location: 
Gainesville, FL
Project Term: 
01/01/2012 to 09/09/2017
Project Status: 
ALUMNI
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Biofuels offer renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels that reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to nearly zero. However, traditional biofuels production is limited not only by the small amount of solar energy that plants convert through photosynthesis into biological materials, but also by inefficient processes for converting these biological materials into fuels. Farm-ready, non-food crops are needed that produce fuels or fuel-like precursors at significantly lower costs with significantly higher productivity. To make biofuels cost-competitive with petroleum-based fuels, biofuels production costs must be cut in half.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

The University of Florida is working to increase the amount of turpentine in harvested pine from 4% to 20% of its dry weight. While enhanced feedstocks for biofuels have generally focused on fuel production from leafy plants and grasses, the University of Florida is experimenting with enhancing fuel production in a species of pine that is currently used in the paper pulping industry. Pine trees naturally produce around 3-5% terpene content in the wood--terpenes are the energy-dense fuel molecules that are the predominant components of turpentine. The team aims to increase the terpene storage potential and production capacity while improving the terpene composition to a point at which the trees could be tapped while alive, like sugar maples. Growth and production from these trees will take years, but this pioneering technology could have significant impact in making available an economical and domestic source of aviation and diesel biofuels.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, the University of Florida's project could make pine trees sources of fuel precursors for the domestic production of aviation and diesel biofuels, enabling large-scale production of replacements for petroleum-based fuels.

Security: 

The transportation sector accounts for nearly all of our petroleum imports. Providing an advanced biofuels alternative to petroleum will allow the U.S. to reduce these imports, improving our energy independence.

Environment: 

More than 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector. Because plants naturally absorb CO2 as they grow, the level of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels is less than half that of petroleum fuels.

Economy: 

The U.S. imports nearly $1 billion in petroleum each day, accounting for the single largest factor in our trade balance with the rest of the world. Biofuels can be produced domestically, allowing us to keep more dollars at home.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
The University of Florida (UF) team plans, by completion of this project set for June 2017, to have produced transgenic pine saplings up to four years old and quantified the improved production of terpenes. The team will also have completed a techno-economic analysis (TEA) of the commercial potential for an alternative approach of treating trees chemically. The first markets are expected to be in specialty chemicals. The long-term commercial objectives of the engineered trees are to triple terpene feedstock per tree, to address supply concerns for the manufacture of the aforementioned specialty chemicals in the United States, to increase the value of this agricultural product for land owners and pulp and paper mills, and to provide increased employment and economic development in rural areas of the Southern United States.
 
To enhance fuel production in loblolly pine trees, the UF team is pursuing a three-part technical approach. The first part is activation, increasing resin synthesis and storage capacity in wood by modifying developmental regulators of resin canals. The second is pathway, improving flux through the terpene biosynthetic pathway by alleviating bottlenecks in the metabolic pathway. The third is enzyme, developing more active terpene biosynthesis enzymes and channeling substrates more efficiently through protein engineering to specific terpene molecules. The team intends to bring each of these approaches together, stacking the traits from each into a single pine tree to meet the project goal. Under ARPA-E funding, the team led by UF has generated 10,000 transgenic loblolly pines using genes identified through these three strategies. In parallel with developing transgenic pines, UF is also working on chemical stimulation as a route to increase terpene content in the near term with an industrial partner, which manufactures products for the asphalt paving, oil exploration and production, agrochemicals, adhesives, lubricants and printing ink industries.
 
For a detailed assessment of the University of Florida project and impact, please click here.



Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Joe Cornelius
Project Contact: 
Prof. Gary Peter
Partners
Arborgen
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
University of California, Berkeley
Release Date: 
9/29/2011