A specifically bred type of tree could be the next breakthrough in biofuels following research done by University of Wisconsin researchers.

According to the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, recent research has allowed poplar trees to be converted into biomass, which can be used as a practical and inexpensive biofuel for energy production.

The research center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is led by UW and works in conjunction with Michigan State University on research in the field of bioenergy. The poplar project, led by UW professor John Ralph and MSU professor Curtis Wilkerson, could be a game changer for the biofuel industry, according to a statement from the center.

The report touted the project as a new low-cost and energy efficient way to convert biomass into fuel. In the article, Wilkerson describes his and UW colleagues’ research paper as, “a rare, top-down approach to engineering plants – in this case poplars – for digestibility.”

“By designing poplars for deconstruction, we can improve the degradability of a very useful biomass product,” Wilkerson said in the statement. “Poplars are dense, easy to store and they flourish on marginal lands not suitable for food crops, making them a non-competing and sustainable source of biofuel.”

The specially designed poplars, initially studied to improve paper industry processes and dairy cow forage digestibility will be easier to convert into biomass.

These trees are converted to biomass by removing lignin, a polymer that gives plant cell walls their sturdiness, the statement said. The current means of removing this substance are costly and inefficient.

UW professor and principal investigator at GLBRC Timothy Donohue said one of the main goals at the center is to generate biomass that can be used for biofuels from non-edible sources.

Ethanol, currently the most widely used biofuel on the market, is made from corn starch.

“Our goal is to further research on advanced biofuels, which would be more efficient than current corn starch used in ethanol,” Donohue said.

He said Ralph’s work with poplar trees is going to take several years before it can go commercial, but when it does it could be the key to creating cost-effective biofuels.

The advanced biofuel industry’s future is bright, Donohue said.

“I believe we will see a massive expansion of biofuel production in the next few years. There are already biofuel plants open in Europe, and there is already steel in the ground for several plants being built in the U.S. Several cities in South America are currently experimenting with bus systems that run on advanced biofuels,” he said.

Sunpower Biodeisel is a Wisconsin company invested in biofuels and committed to providing consumers with eco-friendly alternatives to traditional fossil fuels, spokesperson Dave Lynch said.

However, the company has not invested in research in advanced biofuels as it is too expensive, Lynch said. The research done at GLBRC will allow for the company to move forward to new technologies, he said.