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Challenging plants. The many uses of plants. Useful plants Plants already have numerous uses. In the future there may be many more. Their uses may be categorised as follows Food and animal feed Fuels Fibres Health products Dyes and fragrances Feedstocks Construction materials

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the many uses of plants
The many uses of plants
  • Useful plants
  • Plants already have numerous uses. In the future there may be many more.
  • Their uses may be categorised as follows
  • Food and animal feed
  • Fuels
  • Fibres
  • Health products
  • Dyes and fragrances
  • Feedstocks
  • Construction materials
  • Environmental enhancement
  • Phytoextraction and mining
  • Roadmap challenges
  • In Chemistry for Tomorrow’s World, the RSC says:
  • “Global change is creating enormous challenges relating to energy, food and climate change. It is both necessary and urgent that action be taken.”
  • In its Roadmap, the RSC identified priority areas in which the chemical sciences can support change. These are
  • Energy
  • Food
  • Future cities
  • Human health
  • Lifestyle and recreation
  • Raw materials and feedstocks
  • Water and air

[Full details at:]

Many of these make connections to the use of plants

plants and the challenges
Plants and the challenges
  • Challenges
  • Energy
  • Energy efficiency
  • Energy conversion and storage
  • Fossil fuels
  • Nuclear energy
  • Nuclear waste
  • Biopower and biofuels
  • Hydrogen
  • Solar energy
  • Wind and water
  • Food
  • Agricultural productivity
  • Healthy food
  • Food safety
  • Process efficiency
  • Supply chain waste
  • Future cities
  • Resources
  • Home energy generation
  • Home energy use
  • Construction materials
  • Mobility
  • ICT
  • Public safety and security
  • Some examples of linking uses of plants to the roadmap challenges
  • Biomass for processing into biofuels
  • Potential sources of new therapeutic drugs
  • Staple crops, e.g. cereals and rice, and more specialised foods, e.g. fruit and vegetables
  • Varied foods for balanced, healthy diets
  • Food enriched in essential elements (biofortification)
  • Natural fibres for textiles and clothing, for work and leisure
  • Phytoremediation
  • Biodegradable packaging
  • Materials for construction
  • Feedstocks such as oils, carbohydrates and resins
  • Phytoextraction and, perhaps, phytomining
  • Challenges
  • Human health
  • Ageing
  • Diagnostics
  • Hygiene and infection
  • Materials and prosthetics
  • Drugs and therapies
  • Personalised medicine
  • Lifestyle and recreation
  • Creative industries
  • Household
  • Sporting technology
  • Advanced and sustainable electronics
  • Textiles
  • Water and air
  • Drinking water quality
  • Water demand
  • Wastewater
  • Contaminants
  • Air quality and climate
  • Raw materials and feedstocks
  • Sustainable product design
  • Conservation of scarce natural resources
  • Conversion of biomass feedstocks
  • Recovered feedstocks
growing plants to obtain useful products
Growing plants to obtain useful products

Plants are grown to obtain, for example, for food, animal feed, fuel, medicines, chemical feedstocks and building materials. Some are grown just because they look attractive. Whatever the purpose, all plants need the right conditions to produce good yields of quality plants.

Example: Growing cotton plants to obtain cotton fibres that can be used to make textiles

All plants need nutrients for healthy growth.

Nutrients are absorbed from soil water through the plant’s roots.

Frequently, fertilisers are used to increase the quantities of available nutrients.

Cotton bolls are harvested and cotton fibres obtained from them

Given suitable conditions, seeds germinate and plants grow. At the right time they are harvested.

growing plants for phytomanagement
Growing plants for phytomanagement
  • Plants can be used to:
  • clean up soil - phytoremediation
  • extract substances from the soil - phytoextraction
  • and, a growing possibility, to mine metals from the ground - phytomining


Example: Extracting copper from low grade copper ore and waste from disused copper mines

Plants are harvested, dried and burned to produce an ash - a copper ore.

Copper is extracted from the ash by treatment with, for example, sulfuric acid.

Copper is obtained by chemical or electrolytic reduction of the copper solution.

Copper ore and waste slowly dissolve to give a solution of copper ions.

Copper ions in soil water are absorbed through a plant’s roots into its stems and leaves. This is the same process by which a plant takes up nutrients from the soil.

Copper ions are absorbed through the roots and distributed throughout the plant.

understanding equilibrium and kinetics
Understanding equilibrium and kinetics

Growing plants

Whether it is growing plants to obtain useful producers from them or growing plants for phyomanagement, absorption of ions and molecules from the soil is key.

Two interfaces are key: soil/water and water/root. At each, many exchange equilibriums are happening. Also, numerous chemical equilibriums are happening in soil water.

Understanding the physiochemical principles underpinning equilibrium exchanges that happen at these interfaces and in solution can help us produce quality crops in high yield and to use plants for phytomanagement.

Making and applying fertilisers

Plants require essential nutrients to grow well.

Frequently these are provided by fertilisers, applied to either the soil or to plant foliage.

Arguably nitrogen is the most important nutrient. It is made available in various forms, including liquid ammonia, ammonium salts, nitrates and urea.

Chemical equilibrium plays a key part in the manufacture, for example, of ammonia and nitric acid.

The reaction of nitrogen with

hydrogen is an example of a

chemical equilibrium:

N2(g) + 3H2(g) ⇌ 2NH3(g)

Energetics and kinetics are also vitally important, both in the manufacture and the use of fertilisers.

Understanding the physiochemical principles underpinning these processes enables fertilisers to be made and applied safely and economically.



ions and molecules dissolved in water

ions and molecules dissolved in water

soil water

plants and the active challenges
Plants and the active challenges

Three of the active challenges

Nine roadmap challenges were identified by the RSC for immediate action. Three of these have strong connections with the use of plants to obtain products and for phytomanagement. They are:

Agricultural productivity

Significantly and sustainably increase agricultural productivity to provide food, feed, fibre and fuel.

Conservation of scarce natural resources

Developing alternative materials and new recovery processes for valuable components which cannot be replaced.

Conversion of biomass feedstocks

Developing biomass conversion technology to sustainably produce renewable fuels and chemicals.

For more information and to monitor changes to the active challenges see

  • Agricultural productivity
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Significantly and sustainably increase agricultural productivity to provide food, feed, fibre and fuel.
  • The overall challenge has been divided into six more specific challenges:
  • Effective farming
  • Livestock and aquaculture
  • Pest control
  • Plant science
  • Soil science
  • Water

Click on the links to find out more about each of these challenges

plants and the active challenges1
Plants and the active challenges
  • Conservation of scarce natural resources
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Raw material and feedstock resources for both existing industries and future applications are increasingly scarce. We need to develop a range of alternative materials and along with new processes for recovering valuable components.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Recovery of metals
  • Substitute key materials
  • Reduce material intensity
  • Conversion of biomass feedstocks
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Biomass feedstocks for producing chemicals and fuels are becoming more commercially viable. In the future, integrated bio-refineries using more than one feedstock will yield energy, fuel and a range of chemicals with no waste being produced.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Develop bioprocessing science for producing chemicals
  • New separation technologies
  • Novel catalysts and biocatalysts for processing biomass
  • Convert platform chemicals to high value products
agricultural productivity
Agricultural productivity
  • Effective farming
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Minimising inputs and maximising outputs through agronomic practice.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Develop rapid in situ biosensor systems that can monitor soil quality, crop condition and water availability to pinpoint problems.
  • Analyse climate change parameters in order to be able to predict changing conditions for agronomy.
  • Precision agriculture at the field level.
  • Engineering tools for on farm practices - e.g. grain drying, seed treatment and crop handling
  • Livestock and aquaculture
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Optimised feed conversion and carcass composition.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Develop new vaccines and veterinary medicines to treat the diseases (old/new/emerging) of livestock and farmed fish
  • Aquaculture production for food and industrial use (including algae)
  • Understand feed in animals, via nutrigenomics and bioavailability of nutrients
  • Formulation engineering for delivery and minor component release to reduce waste.
  • Genetic engineering
  • Genetic analysis for conventional breeding - Qualitative Trait Loci (QTL)

Back to Plants and the active challenges

agricultural productivity1
Agricultural productivity
  • Pest control
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Up to 40 per cent of agricultural productivity would be lost without effective use of crop protection chemicals. Agriculture is facing emerging and resistant strains of pests. The development of new crop protection strategies is essential.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • New high-potency, more targeted agrochemicals with new modes of action. These must be safe to use, overcome resistant pests and environmentally benign.
  • Formulation technology for new mixtures of existing actives, and to ensure a consistent effective dose is delivered at the right time and in the right quantity
  • Develop better pest control strategies, including using pheromones, semiochemicals and allelochemicals, as well as GM and pesticides
  • Pesticides tailored to the challenges of specific plant growth conditions - eg hydroponics
  • Reduce chemical crop protection strategies through GM crops
  • Plant science
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Increasing yield and controlling secondary metabolism by better understanding plant science.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Understand and exploit biochemical plant signals for developing new crop defence technologies
  • Improve the understanding of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur cycling to help optimise carbon and nitrogen sequestration and benefit plant nutrition
  • Understand plant growth regulators
  • Develop secondary metabolites for food and industrial use
  • Understand the impact of nutrients at the macro and micro level
  • Exploit the outputs of this understanding using biotechnology
  • Nitrogen and water usage efficiency - e.g. drought resistant crops for better water management
  • Better yields of components for biofuels and feedstocks through the use of modern biotechnology

Back to Plants and the active challenges

agricultural productivity2
Agricultural productivity
  • Soil science
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Understanding the structural, chemical and microbiological composition of soil and its interactions with plants and the environment.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Develop fertiliser formulations able to improve the retention of nitrogen in soil and uptake into plants 
  • Optimise farming practices by understanding the biochemistry of soil ecosystems, for example, the mobility of chemicals within soil
  • Improve the understanding of methane oxidation by bacteria in soil to help in developing methane-fixing technologies
  • Understand soil structure - mechanical properties of soils and nutrient flow
  • Low energy synthesis of nitrogen and phosphorus-containing fertilisers.
  • Water
  • (
  • Challenge
  • Coping with extremes of water quality and availability for agriculture.
  • Potential opportunities for the chemical sciences
  • Use grey water in agriculture
  • Targeted use of water in agriculture (drip delivery)

Back to Plants and the active challenges