Purdue University researchers have received a $5.2-million U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop a plant that can make a ready-to-burn biofuel.

"Scientists have been focused on getting the sugars out of cell walls and using microorganisms to ferment those sugars into fuel," says biochemist Clint Chapple, the grant's principal investigator. "We want to take advantage of a plant's metabolic pathways to make biofuel directly."

About 25% of a plant's biomass is lignin, a rigid compound in cell walls that can’t be conveniently converted to a liquid fuel, says Chapple. His team wants to reroute the molecule that plants funnel into lignin production – the amino acid phenylalanine – into an alternative metabolic pathway to create phenylethanol, a biofuel that could be blended with gasoline, much like ethanol is now.

"We wouldn't be able to literally squeeze fuel from the plants, but it would be close," he says.

Horticulturist Natalia Dudareva will focus on increasing phenylalanine production in plants, and chemical engineer John Morgan will develop mathematical models to determine the most efficient methods for rerouting phenylalanine and for making phenylethanol.

The researchers will work with the common research plant arabidopsis before applying any findings to a biofuel plant such as poplar trees or switchgrass, says Chapple.