The team’s study also pinpointed certain poplar samples that produced unusually high sugar yields with no pretreatment. Biofuel production typically requires various pretreatments, such as applying high temperature and pressure to the biomass. Reducing pretreatment would represent a substantial decrease in the price of liquid transportation fuels produced from lignocellulosic feedstocks like poplar.

“It's very enticing that several of the samples released more sugar than typical with no pretreatment,” Wyman said.

Poplar trees, botanically known as Populus, represent the leading woody crop candidate for the production of biomass feedstocks for the creation of biofuels in the U.S. Naturally occurring selections of poplar trees contained wide variations in all observed traits, says Gerald Tuskan, an ORNL plant biologist and one of the co-leads of the study.

“We can mine this natural variability and find extreme poplar phenotypes that have value in increasing sugar yield,” Tuskan said. “Moreover, these native individuals are adapted to local environments.”

From this work, superior poplar cultivars may soon be available for commercial testing and propagation, yielding plant materials that will contribute to reducing the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel based transportation fuels.

The team, supported by BESC at ORNL, included co-lead Mark Davis and Robert Sykes from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Jaclyn DeMartini from UCR, and Brian Davison and Martin Keller from ORNL.

BESC is one of three DOE Bioenergy Research Centers established by the DOE's Office of Science in 2007. The centers support multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research teams pursuing the fundamental scientific breakthroughs needed to make production of cellulosic biofuels, or biofuels from nonfood plant fiber, cost-effective on a national scale. The three centers are coordinated at ORNL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with Michigan State University.

The Bourns College of Engineering's Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) at UCR is a model for partnerships between industry, government and academia. It is a recognized leader in research and education in the areas of atmospheric processes, emissions and fuels, sustainable energy and transportation systems.