09/20/2011 04:19 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Scientists study the power of poplar, cottonwood trees thanks to new funding

VANCOUVER - Massive plantations of poplar and cottonwood trees could one day dot Canada's landscape, much like oil rigs do today, producing environmentally sustainable fuels for transportation, says a botanist.

Carl Douglas of the University of British Columbia is among a team of researchers from across Canada who plan to use $9.8 million in funding announced Tuesday to find more efficient ways of growing those trees so their natural sugars can be fermented and turned into products like ethanol.

Douglas said the current process of releasing the sugars from the wood isn't working well.

"I think the benefits are really in establishing alternatives to fossil fuels that are economically and environmentally feasible," he said.

"We know that we can't rely on fossil fuels forever, and also we have, as we know, big problems with carbon emission into the atmosphere. So we really need to start working on alternatives for energy."

But not everyone is excited about the idea.

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said such plantations threaten forest ecosystems around the world and could lead to greater control of plant matter by corporations.

Spurring the research, however, are mandates by the governments of Canada and B.C., requiring a minimum five per cent renewable fuel content in gasoline.

British Columbia also wants to cut carbon emissions by 10 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by 2020.

A substantial amount of biomass will have to be grown in Canada to achieve that, Douglas said.

He said he is focusing on trees because they can grow quickly and in areas where land is not suited for agricultural purposes. In the case of a poplar tree, about 75 per cent of the wood is comprised of sugars such cellulose.

But Douglas said getting to the sugars to create fuel is challenging because the physical structure of the wood makes the process inefficient.

He said he wants to identify genetic variants in poplar and cottonwood trees that will make that process easier once those genes are combined differently.

"It's not a genetic modification approach. It's really using the genes that are already there in the trees and combining them in new ways."

He said the process is similar to breeding roses to look a particular way.

However, Sharratt said she's concerned and called the creation of plantations consisting of genetically engineered trees a "dangerous trend."

"Land and ecosystems that are valuable to all of us are being given a dollar value, even on top of the commodification already," she said.

"If trees are used for fuel, then we see the potential for expanding monoculture plantations, and if these monoculture plantations of trees are genetically engineered trees, those genetically engineered trees put the future of forest ecosystems at risk."

She said she has attended conferences where big oil companies have talked about turning forests into liquefied oil for transportation.

Douglas said the plantations would have to be massive to be economically viable and would probably be better suited to provinces other than B.C. because of its topography, noting the exception of large areas devastated by problems such as the mountain pine beetle.

"The idea is not to replace the wild forests with these kind of things, but rather to take land that is either marginal agricultural land or similar kinds of areas."

Genome Canada, Genome BC and various partners are providing the funding for Douglas's research.

He said the research should last another 10 to 15 years, and Tuesday's announcement will fund about three of those years

Scientists from the University of Victoria, University of Alberta and University of Toronto are also involved in the project.