Sunflowers: A Fuel of the Future?

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Sunflowers are already used for oil production and to make biodiesel— now scientists want to look into their viability as ethanol producers in the state of Georgia and beyond.

Over the next few years, University of Georgia scholar Steve Knapp will study silverleaf and Algodones dune sunflowers, both of which  are woody-stemmed species that grow as tall as 21 feet. The species have the ability to produce significant amounts of cellulosic biomass, which can be converted into ethanol.

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But both the silverleaf and Algodones dune sunflowers are wild species, and domestication takes time. Knapp plans to tackle the problem by studying each of the sunflower’s 40,000 to 50,000 genes to determine what they control in the plant. Obviously, this is an undertaking that could take years.

However, Knapp does have plentiful funding to get him started—he has received $1.2 million from the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, $500,000 from seed companies, and $400,000 from the USDA Plant Genome program.

Whether or not the sunflowers emerges as a serious contender in the ethanol race remains to be seen, but its commercial use could easily provide some extra income to Georgia farmers.

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