Cassava plants

Fuel the world

Harnessing plant energy reduces our reliance on fossil fuel

Fossil fuels will eventually run out. However, alternatives that rely on today’s plants are in plentiful supply. Ethanol is an alcohol fuel that can be produced from corn, sugar or wood by fermenting the starchy or cellulosic parts. Most US ethanol comes from corn, whereas Brazil uses sugar cane to make the ethanol in its gasohol blend (25 per cent ethanol, 75 per cent gasoline). The problem with these biofuel crops is that they take up scarce land that could otherwise be used for growing food. (See the debate on biofuels from our ‘Fat’ issue.)

Other plant-based power options include a recent University of Cambridge project harnessing soil bacteria in walls made from synthetic material and living plants. In the process, the bacteria release electrons that can be channelled into an electrical circuit. The team of scientists produced a prototype green bus shelter powered by plants. There are also some solar panels that use plant-inspired pigments and dyes to harness the sun’s power.

Lead image:

A field of cassava plants. The cassava root, when dried, ferments into ethanol which after being processed becomes an important ingredient of gasohol.

United Nations Photo/Derek Lovejoy/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
11–14, 14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development