Chrysler/Purdue University program uses poplars for cleanup and fuel feedstock

In another of Chrysler's experiments with new ways of producing biofuel feedstocks (see also here), they have teamed up with Purdue University to make use of an environmentally contaminated site. Instead of the typical agricultural crops, they have planted poplar trees at a site called Peter's Pond in central Indiana. Chrysler worked with Purdue Associate Professor Rick Meilan develop a new hybrid variety of poplar that can absorb more contaminants from the soil. A second goal of the new hybrid was to make it easier to process the tree into ethanol after harvesting. The trees developed by Prof. Meilan are able to absorb up to ninety percent of contaminants like trichloroethelyne from the soil. The lignin that binds the cellulose together has been modified to allow the cellulose to be more easily broken down.

[Source: Chrysler]

Chrysler Partnership with Purdue University Taps Environmental Powers of Poplars

# Hybrid Poplars Tested at Rural Indiana Site
# Faster Phytoremediation – Using Plants to Clean Up Pollution
# Purdue Researchers Also Developing Poplars for Better Biofuels

Auburn Hills, Mich., Dec 12, 2007 - Chrysler LLC is partnering with Purdue University to test the powers of poplar trees to clean up environmental spills and, in separate work, develop poplars that can serve as feedstock for improved renewable biofuels.

In the first stage of the project, plots of hybrid poplars have been planted at Peter's Pond, the site of an environmental cleanup being conducted by Chrysler in rural central Indiana.

Chrysler's collaborator on the project is Purdue Associate Professor Rick Meilan, who is looking for ways to greatly improve hybrid poplars' ability to clean up contaminants in the environment. Meilan is also part of a team researching altered varieties of poplars that would improve the process of turning harvested plants into bio-ethanol for use in Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs).

"This project supports our most important environmental principles at Chrysler: respect for the environment, returning our former sites to productive use, and promoting the use of clean, renewable, American-made biofuels such as ethanol, in our vehicles," said Deborah Morrissett, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at Chrysler.

Chrysler has invested more than $10 billion over the past two decades to either refurbish existing sites or to prepare vacant sites for productive use.

Chrysler has also produced nearly two million Flexible Fuel Vehicles capable of running on E85 (85 percent ethanol), gasoline or a mixture of the two fuels. The company will produce an additional 500,000 FFVs in 2008.

Meilan is part of a research team that is developing altered poplars with much greater ability to take up contaminants. In their research, Meilan and colleagues found that engineered poplars removed more than 90 percent of pollutants such as trichloroethylene (TCE) from a test solution in one week, compared with just 3 percent of pollutants removed by unaltered poplars. TCE, a commonly used solvent, was found in the soil and groundwater at Peter's Pond.

In addition, the specially-engineered poplars were able to break down the pollutants 100 times faster than the unaltered poplar.

Meilan will plant the specially-engineered poplars at the Peter's Pond site next spring. Their ability to remove TCE from the soil will be compared with the hybrid poplars already planted at the site.

The process of using plants to absorb pollutants from the soil, known as phytoremediation, should work well at Peter's Pond since the remaining pollutants are within 10 feet of the surface and readily accessible to poplars' roots.

"Peter's Pond is the perfect place to take this process out of the lab and test it on a field-sized scale," said Meilan.

Meilan and colleagues are also developing hybrid poplars that can be refined into ethanol more easily. One of the barriers to producing ethanol is lignin, a compound that helps give the plant its strength. However, lignin impedes access to cellulose, the primary source of sugar in the plant to be converted into ethanol. By developing poplars with modified lignin, Meilan hopes to make renewable ethanol faster and cheaper to produce.

If the process works out, it can be readily adapted to many other parts of the world, Meilan noted.

"Poplars grow across a wide geographic range and in many different climates," Meilan said.

"People have had their eye on the poplar for a long time."

Chrysler's FFV Lineup

For the 2008 model year, Chrysler offers 11 products with the E85 Flexible Fuel option:

* Dodge: Dakota, Ram, Durango, Avenger, Grand Caravan
* Chrysler: Aspen, Town & Country, Sebring sedan and convertible
* Jeep: Grand Cherokee, Commander

Chrysler also promotes the use of biodiesel, another clean, renewable, American-made alternative fuel. Jeep® Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Ram and Sprinter diesel vehicles are all approved for use with B5 (5 percent biodiesel) fuel and are delivered to customers running on B5.

History of Peter's Pond

The property known as Peter's Pond was once used for gravel mining operations.

In the mid-1960s, oils from the Chrysler Transmission Plant in Kokomo were disposed of in three abandoned gravel pits. Cleanup of the site was begun in the mid-1980s, and Chrysler continues to monitor the groundwater and soil today.

Two small areas on the site still have small amounts of pollutants. Chrysler proposed the phytoremediation system using poplars to polish the remaining pollutants from the soil and groundwater.

Ultimately, the plan is to return the Peter's Pond site to farming, a major economic activity in central Indiana.

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