Forest of clean fuel

On Dec. 15, the government will require at least five per cent of the gasoline used for transportation in Canada to be made of renewable content. Per year, this translates to almost 2 billion litres of renewable fuel for small vehicles alone. That’s enough fuel to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This new federal government policy sounds good to Shawn Mansfield, a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC who advocates for reducing our reliance on petroleum.

But, he is unsure of where that fuel will come from. He says it is unlikely that the agricultural sector will be able to supply the renewable resources required for transportation, and especially not at the expense of producing food and feed.

For the past decade, Mansfield and his colleagues have been trying to find a solution. He hopes tree-derived transportation fuels can offset some of the pressure on the agricultural sector.

“We are trying to develop trees that have more cellulose,” says the molecular biologist, who works with the genes responsible for making up the cell walls in trees.

“Cellulose is the world’s most abundant polymer and is used to make everything from food supplements to clothing. Because it’s a carbohydrate, it can also be converted to ethanol and used to supplement gasoline.”

“We’re also trying to reduce the amount of lignin in the plant cell walls,” says the professor. Lignin restricts the processing of wood, making it difficult to convert cellulose to ethanol.

Mansfield and his colleagues have successfully produced trees with about five per cent more cellulose and substantially less lignin. Now the professor is working to generate trees with both trait modifications.

“A five per cent increase, at industrial volumes, translates into substantial gain for a community whose economy relies on processing wood.”

Despite Mansfield’s success in the lab, he is not an advocate for applying his research to nature yet.

“In 2006, the first tree genome was released,” he says. “We need to fully understand the fundamental molecular control of plant growth and development before we start planting genetically modified trees.”

Despite his apprehensions, Mansfield is motivated to continue his research. With
a growing population and increasing evidence of the impacts of climate change, there is more strain on the world’s food supplies and transportation needs.

“The only way to combat this problem is by combining plant biotechnology with breeding strategies,” says Mansfield.
“We’re going to need more resources to accommodate the growing population and to ensure that developing countries have the opportunities to attain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.”

Forest scientists from all over the world echo Mansfield’s thoughts. Forests are integral to mitigating climate change—they sequester substantial volumes of carbon dioxide. In fact, this was the overarching theme at the International Union of Forest Research Organizations’ World Congress, a conference that Mansfield attended in August.

The professor was there collecting one of 10 Scientific Achievement Awards, given to scientists for their contributions to the field of forestry. Considered one of the most prestigious awards in the field, it was a surprising success for the 41-year-old.

Mansfield’s colleague, Yousry El-Kassaby, who studies applied forest genetics, was also recognized with a Scientific Achievement Award; marking the first time two people from a single institution have won the award.