Spotlight scholar: Sustainable Biofuels
Biochemist Danny Schnell sees a time in the not-so-distant future when automobiles will run solely on electricity but air travel will still depend on liquid fuel. Given this expected evolution in technology, Schnell is applying his knowledge of plant photosynthesis to develop seed crop oil that could be the sustainable aviation fuel of the future.
“Our main focus is to develop plants which are very similar to those that produce canola oil. However, these plants contrast with others because the oil they produce cannot be used as food,” says Schnell.
An internationally-known expert in plant physiology, photosynthesis and plant biochemistry, Schnell and his team of academic and industrial collaborators have been working with the plant Camelina sativa under a $4.2 M Department of Energy PETRO (Plant Engineered to Replace Oil) grant because of its unique qualities as a biofuel source. In addition to the plant’s adaptation to grow on very marginal lands, Camelina is also resistant to water stress and requires minimal fertilizer for productivity. These three attributes combine to make Camelina more sustainable and economical to grow than other types of non-food-based biofuel feedstock.
Despite existing methods that are used to convert the plant oil to air craft fuel, scientists have still been unable to produce enough of the feedstock to provide that supply chain. Schnell’s group is working on increasing that yield.
“With the approaches that we’ve taken we have seen upwards of a 50 percent increase in the production which is a big step forward,” says Schnell. “Given our work and understanding of how photosynthesis can be enhanced to increase production coupled with traditional plant breeding approaches, we believe we can achieve up to a 200 percent increase in yield,” he adds.
Schnell feels one of his greatest contributions to meeting this challenge has been his ability to demonstrate that one can in fact increase crop yield by improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, (increasing the capacity of plants to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it to a useful product). However, he acknowledges his greatest challenge to also be the most exciting in the sense that plants don’t evolve to meet the needs of humanity but instead to survive.
"The most exciting part of this research has been our ability to take advantage of evolution and investigate other organisms that are able to do photosynthesis more efficiently,” said Schnell. “Given this knowledge we were then able to utilize these approaches to get the Camelina plants to utilize similar biochemical processes to increase photosynthesis significantly, approximately 20 percent, which results in an increase in crop productivity of around 50 percent.”
Schnell has received wide acclaim for broadening our understanding of the biochemistry of plants and their potential to help meet our future energy needs. In 2013 he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for his “distinguished contributions to the field of biological sciences.” In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists, an honor granted to no more than 2 percent of the association’s membership each year. Schnell has also published a compilation of book chapters and journal articles which have generated over 2,500 non-self-citations making him an “international leader in the biochemical analysis of protein translocation into chloroplasts.”
“It is important to note that his research papers are truly fundamental in the field [of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology] because of their impeccable quality and interpretation,” says Jennifer Normanly, head of the campus’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department. “He is a scientist of the highest rank,” she adds.