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New screening method to help find better biofuel crops

AMES, Iowa -- Skyrocketing gasoline prices and growing concern over global warming has spawned massive growth of the biofuel industry, particularly ethanol production. While corn has been the major raw material for producing ethanol, producers are looking for other more cost effective and sustainable crops and researchers at the U.S. Department of Energys Ames Laboratory are looking at a novel way to help them determine what type of plant material offers the best solution.

Analytical chemist Emily Smith plans to use Raman imaging to study plant cell structure to determine which crops offer the right combination of cell wall composition and degradation to maximize the materials conversion to ethanol. If successful, a simplified version of the test could even be used in the field to determine if plants were at the prime stage for harvest.

Just like vintners monitor and test the sugar content of their grapes in the field, biofuel producers could potentially use this technology to determine if their crop was at optimal development for conversion to ethanol, said Smith, who is also an Iowa State University assistant professor of chemistry.

The Raman technique Smith uses employs an optical microscope, and specimens are illuminated with a laser beam. As the laser light hits the sample, some of the light is scattered. By analyzing the scattered light with a spectrometer, Smith can easily and quickly determine the chemical makeup of the plant material. A fiber optic bundle placed between the microscope and the spectrometer allows a direct measure of the chemical makeup at any location on the sample being viewed on the microscope.

This method has several advantages over other analytical techniques, Smith explained. First, analysis requires very little material so you can take small samples from a growing plant over time without damaging the plant. This also makes the technique high-throughput.Because only very small pieces of
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Contact: Kerry Gibson
kgibson@ameslab.gov
515-294-1405
DOE/Ames Laboratory
5-Jun-2007


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