There are several advantages of hydrocarbons from green plants. Hydrocarbons are compounds made up of carbon and hydrogen and the principle ingredients in the fossil fuels, oil and gas. Fossil-fuel hydrocarbons were created millions of years ago by deposits of decaying plants and animals. Used today, these ancient hydrocarbons emit greenhouse, or global warming, gases, polluting the environment. Hydrocarbons, however, are also created by green plants. These plants capture solar energy and create something "chemically identical to petroleum," states Jackie Shanks, professor of chemical engineering at Iowa State University, and may "create second-generation biofuels," or clean fuels produced from biological material.
Hydrocarbons from green plants are renewable, unlike fossil fuels which are not sustainable and expected to be depleted in the next few decades. Another advantage is that they are clean and don't emit pollutants into the atmosphere. Once more research is completed, they may one day replace the polluting gas currently fuelling cars, trains and planes. A last advantage is that, unlike other renewable sources such as solar or wind energy, plant hydrocarbons are easily transported through the current infrastructure.
The plants currently studied and evaluated for hydrocarbon extraction include algae, switch grass, poplar trees and woody plants. Algae, which range from microscopic size to 200-foot kelp, are studied extensively for their hydrocarbon production. They are attractive as a fossil fuel alternative because they grow year round and on poor soil. This means that, when grown in massive amounts, good soil would be saved for food crops. Woody plants produce an energy-rich substance, lignin, with strong hydrocarbon production potential.
While the advantages of plant hydrocarbons are well known, researchers "don't know the exact structures, mechanisms, genetics and metabolism" of the conversion of plant energy into hydrocarbons, Dr. Shanks explains. Many such research projects are underway. The government has recently funded numerous research projects on methods to obtain hydrocarbons from plants. Other research projects include the development of biomass feedstocks and the study of biocatalysts, enzymes which use solar energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce hydrocarbons.