Who Says You Can’t Mess with Mother Nature? Scientists Altering the Tree for the Good of You and Me

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British Columbia forest

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Scientists are growing trees to power the planet and be genetically more efficient at producing paper.

Researchers at Oregon State University in the United States, have discovered a way to turn trees into high-tech batteries, while off Canada’s west coast, another research team at the University of British Columbia has been busy genetically altering trees to be better at producing paper.

Who says you can’t mess with Mother Nature? Not these scientists.

The research team in Oregon took the cellulose material from trees, added some ammonia, and baked it in a furnace, and voila, they had a nitrogen-doped nanoporous carbon membrane.

A nano-what?

In non-science-speak, that’s the electrode part of a supercapacitor. Supercapacitors are like rechargeable batteries on steroids. They store more power, last longer, and can be recharged many more times than a typical rechargeable battery.

Supercapacitors may be found in common household electronics, such as the flash in your digital camera, but are capable of much more. They are very efficient, able to re-capture energy to reduce drain, and extend their lifespan, so they are also found in hybrid and electric vehicles. If your vehicle has regenerative braking – the ability to re-capture energy from braking – chances are your vehicle has supercapacitors.

However, supercapacitors haven’t replaced all of our power needs because they cost a lot to manufacture because it takes a lot of resources to produce the high-quality carbon electrodes found in these super-batteries.

Lead researcher Xiulei (David) Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry at Oregon State University’s College of Science is really excited, because tree cellulose is one of the most common substances on our planet, and they’ve found a way to use it to cleanly power our electronic-dependent world.

“The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting,” Ji says. “We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product.”

The tree-based supercapacitors are extremely thin – a single gram has a surface area of about 2,000 square meters, and they can be manufactured in a single-step reaction, which makes them extremely economical to produce.

Ji’s study, published in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, says these tree-based supercapacitors are low in cost to produce, don’t take as long to create, and are less harmful to the environment.

The only by-product is methane, which could be used immediately as a fuel to power the manufacturing process, the study suggests.

Meanwhile, in the heavily forested province of British Columbia, researchers are genetically altering trees to be more efficient and less environmentally-harmful paper-producers.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia have modified trees that can be broken down easier into the components needed to create paper and biofuel. This means using fewer chemicals, less energy and creating fewer environmental pollutants in the production of paper and biofuels.

Lignin, a common polymer in the cell wall of most plants, requires a significant amount of chemicals and energy to break down, during the manufacturing process. This process also produces waste products.

Lignin gives trees their strength, and that strength has plagued the pulp and paper industry for decades.

Shawn Mansfield, a professor of Wood Sciences at the University of British Columbia, says they have genetically engineered the lignin, to make it easier to break down, without affecting the tree’s strength.

“We’re designing trees to be processed with less energy, and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible,” boasts Mansfield.

Previously, researchers had tried to reduce the quantity of lignin in trees, by suppressing their genes, but this stunted the tree’s growth, and made them more susceptible to wind, snow, pests and disease.

“It is truly a unique achievement to design trees for deconstruction while maintaining their growth potential and strength,” says Mansfield.

The genetically altered tree research team consists of researchers spanning North America, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, and the University of British Columbia. The study, funded by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Centre, was recently published in the journal Science.

So, who says you can’t mess with Mother Nature?

Not the scientists across North America changing the way we power our tech, and produce paper and biofuels.

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