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SIU student grows a better fuel

By Austin Miller, @AMiller_DE

After spending years on the road, one SIU student remembers what makes a truck run, and hopes to make it even better. 

James Anderson, a research assistant from Fort Polk, La., is researching how to improve the quality of soybeans for biofuel.

Anderson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture from SIU in 2010, said he first became aware of biofuels while a semi-truck driver in 2008.

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As part of an Environmental Protection Agency program, Anderson and other drivers were required to use a biodiesel mixture—consisting of 90 percent diesel fuel and 10 percent biodiesel.

He said biodiesel is a form of clean, renewable energy created primarily by soybeans and corn, as well as other organic materials. Forty-seven percent of biodiesel fuel is created from soybeans.

Anderson said biofuel has less carbon emissions than petroleum fuel because biofuel does not add new carbon dioxide into the air, like coal, but uses already present CO2.

Anderson’s time on the road led to interesting observations.

He said chunks of leftover petroleum diesel would come off and clog the truck’s engine, something drivers would blame the biodiesel for.

To earn his doctorate, Anderson knew he had to work with a problem and try to solve it. He said he remembered his past biofuel experiences and wanted to breed better soybeans for fuel.

“We allow Ph.D. students to select their own project based on what they like to do,” said Anderson’s project adviser Stella Kantartzi, lead investigator in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Lab. “They provide the basis of their research program and then we help them with the rest.”

Kantartzi said while she did not have any prior experience with biofuels, she said the breeding aspect of the project is the same as any other because they are still just looking for traits.

Anderson said he needed to breed soybeans with a specific makeup. The beans had to be high in oleic acid, which creates a longer shelf life, and low in linolenic acid, which causes the oil to spoil faster. The plants also had to have a high yield, or the amount harvested.

Kantartzi said the breeding program has between 500 and 700 genetic lines each year. With her help, the two began cross breeding plants with the desired traits.

Anderson started with 100 lines of soybeans in 2012 and is now down to 21. He will narrow the lines down to his best five or six, which Kantartzi said Anderson has found.

“We identify specific characteristics in the field, then we go back to the lab and locate places on the DNA and chromosomes that are associated with the traits,” Kantartzi said. “Everything is in the DNA.”

Aside from breeding the soybeans with certain characteristics, researchers can also use mutations.

Naoufal Lakhssassi, a post-doctoral fellow, is using Ethyl Methane Sulfonate to alter the DNA of the seed.

Lakhssassi said the lab, led by Khalid Meksem, professor of plant soil and agricultural systems, starts with 10,000 seeds each year. The seeds are sorted into groups of 100 and sit in 100 mL of the chemical overnight. Half of the seeds will die, but the surviving group has their DNA altered.

Time for a brief biology lesson.

DNA has four bases, adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. Adenine pairs with thymine and cytosine with guanine. The chemical turns guanine into adenine, which will turn cytosine into thymine.

Instead of gaining special powers like the X-Men, these mutants will go on to express different characteristics.

The changed DNA can then block certain enzymes and produce different acids.

“Those enzymes have different activities, so if you block an enzyme at one point in the pathway, you will have an accumulation of the fatty acids at the top,” Lakhssassi said.

Oleic acid is produced earlier in the soybeans’ pathway, so blocking the later acids, like linolenic, means more oleic acid.

Aside from the scientific component of the project, Anderson said it is significant for him to be able to work on something important to him.

He is a recycler and advocate of the 100-mile diet, where someone only eats food found within a 100-mile radius. While he does not completely follow it, Anderson does try to eat as local as possible.

“What’s the point of being on this earth if you don’t try and make sure other people can enjoy it,” he said. “We all have our own lifestyle, so we should do everything in our power to make sure that lifestyle doesn’t harm the environment.”

Anderson showed off his research at the National Biodiesel Conference and Expo Jan. 19 through the 22nd in Fort Worth, Texas.

He said he saw some interesting projects at he conference, including someone in Nevada trying to make biofuel from desert plants.

Anderson said his research should conclude in about December, after the upcoming field season.

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