Any Colour as Long as It's Green

Posted by A.C. Ping
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Imagine a world where all streets and highways are lined by specially engineered tress that absorb the noxious gases released by cars and trucks, where all new housing developments set aside land for suburban forests aimed at improving the atmospheric environment. Science fiction ? Not according to Toyota. In the labs of Toyota Motor Corp., outside Nagoya Japan, 40 researchers are working on engineering just such high performance trees.

It is an activity that would surprise many people, but it is not something that Toyota, Japan’s No. 1 car maker, is taking lightly. In 1990, Toyota’s Future Project Division began research into bio-technology and forest building and two years later implemented the ‘Forest of Toyota’ project to improve the environment by utilising the process of a self renewing ecosystem. It’s all part of Toyota’s efforts to establish itself as a ‘green’ car maker. On one side of the equation, Toyota has been working on reducing vehicle emissions and last December became the first auto maker to offer on the market an affordable hybrid car, powered by electricity and gasoline. On the other side, is the Forest of Toyota, a project ranging from planting more trees to developing smog eating plants.

Yasuhiko Komatsu, General manager of the Forest of Toyota project explains what's going on. We are focussing on plants’ natural ability to cleanse the atmosphere. We are developing plants that have a superior ability to recycle air and also researching how to grow these plants in large quantities.

So how does it work ? Plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis in their leaves. Nitrogen dioxide, a key pollutant from petrol engines, is absorbed by the stems and stalks and turned into plant protein, as well as purifying the air. Toyota’s aim is to improve the efficiency with which plants and trees convert these pollutants into either oxygen or food.

Initially Toyota’s botanists analysed different tree species and found that some trees such as the Eucalyptus globulus have the absorption ability of more than 40 times of those having low abilities. Next, they tried to improve the original ability of the tree through gene manipulation and other methods, but the results were not encouraging. The big breakthrough came when they tried to cultivate a tree having a large degree of stoma opening through polyploid manipulation. In layman’s terms, what this means is that they tried to encourage the tiny holes in the surface of the leaves, called stoma - which conduct physical gas exchange, to open more widely and hence make it easier to absorb pollutants. Polyploid manipulation is like supercharging the tree, it refers to doubling the number of chromosomes per plant.

The results ? The ‘super’ eucalyptus trees absorb 30% more nitrous oxide than the average tree, whilst altered London plane trees absorb 20% more. The trees also grow a lot faster than normal. The only drawbacks are that the ‘super’ trees require more water and that the success rate in encouraging the plant’s seeds to metamorphose into the versions with double chromosomes is only about 5%.

Toyota’s next step is to painstakingly field test these ‘super’ trees to ensure that there are no environmental ill effects. Last year the company’s model suburban forest, Foresta Hills, was increased in size to 15 hectares and the Toyota is now planting a 5,000 hectare forest outside of Perth. Although these 50 million trees are mainly intended to be grown for wood pulp, experimental trees will also be planted.

And for the future ? The Australian forest will take 10 years to mature, but already Toyota is lobbying the Japanese Government to enable them to line the highways of Japan with old fashioned trees and, Royal Dutch/Shell has committed to spend US$500 million over the next five years planting forests in Chile and New Zealand to absorb carbon dioxide. Time will tell but maybe the future is green ?

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