Published on February 26th, 2014 | by James Ayre


Sugarcane Into Diesel — Cold-Tolerant, Highly Productive, Oil-Producing Crop Developed For US

February 26th, 2014 by  

A new type of sugarcane possessing a photosynthetic rate that’s been increased by 30%, boosted oil production, and improved cold-tolerance has been developed by a multi-institutional research team. The new sugarcane was developed with the intention of allowing large-scale biodiesel production to be undertaken in the US, using the new crop.

With the improved cold-tolerance — and the accompanying increase in growing range — sugarcane biodiesel production could supply up to 147% of the US mandate for renewable fuels, according to the researchers. They also note that the crop could be (relatively) easily grown on the abandoned land that’s somewhat common throughout the Southeast.

Researchers are engineering sugarcane into a more productive, oil-producing plant that can grow in cooler climes. If their work proceeds as expected, growers will be able to meet 147% of the US mandate for renewable fuels with the modified sugarcane, the team reports. This crop could grow on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20% of the green zone on the map). Image Credit: Stephen P. Long

Researchers are engineering sugarcane into a more productive, oil-producing plant that can grow in cooler climes. If their work proceeds as expected, growers will be able to meet 147% of the US mandate for renewable fuels with the modified sugarcane, the team reports. This crop could grow on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20% of the green zone on the map).
Image Credit: Stephen P. Long

The research team will be presenting its latest work and findings on February 25th at the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC.

“Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you’ve pressed the oil out it’s fairly easy to convert it to diesel,” stated Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois professor of plant biology and leader of the initiative. “You could do it in your kitchen.”

Soybean-oil agriculture, though, isn’t productive enough to fully meet the country’s demands for renewable diesel fuels, Long noted. Sugarcane and sorghum are a different matter.

“Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre,” he continued.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides more:

Working first with the laboratory-friendly plant Arabidopsis and later with sugarcane, the team introduced genes that boost natural oil production in the plant. They increased oil production in sugarcane stems to about 1.5%.

Using genetic engineering, the researchers increased photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30%, Long said. And to boost cold tolerance, researchers are crossing sugarcane with Miscanthus, a related perennial grass that can grow as far north as Canada. The new hybrid is more cold-tolerant than sugarcane, but further crosses are needed to restore the other attributes of sugarcane while preserving its cold-tolerance.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but at 1.5%, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50% more oil per acre than a soybean field,” Long stated. “There’s enough oil to make it worth harvesting.”

The researchers are ultimately looking to bring the oil content of sugarcane up to around 20%.

“Our goal is to make sugarcane produce more oil, be more productive with more photosynthesis and be more cold-tolerant,” he concluded.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Jossarian

    Please shut down this shit immediatelly! This will lead to holocaust of people which can’t afford elevated food prices thanks to this “improvement”. Food is to be eaten, not burned by oil hungry cars. There are much better alternatives as electric cars especiallyu the ones retrofitted with E-Cat like reactors.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You missed the part about using land which isn’t suitable for other agricultural uses.

      And please take that fraudulent E-Cat someplace else.

  • Wayne Williamson

    Interesting thing about the green zone is that it is one of the best solar panel zones to. My oh my, which way do we go….

  • Hans

    I would like to know the energy return on energy investment (ERoEI). Is it above 1?

    In general I am sceptic about biofuels, they seem like a desperate attempt to kling to the old explosion motor.

  • There are too many inefficiencies and complications in producing energy from biofuels, Including the need to continue to use expensive complicated internal combustion engines and generators. It is better than what we are doing now, but doesn’t compare to the potential of solar & wind combined with batteries and capacitors.

  • its still combustion and btw pv skips a few steps and is “well to wheel” far more efficient that photosynthesis. so ya biofuels dont make a ton of sense even on a cost basis. no thx.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Care to tell us how we fly passenger planes over oceans using PV?

      • Jouni Valkonen

        You should ask this from Elon Musk and other Tesla engineers who have spent considerable amount of time pondering how electric jet could be feasible.

        Also have you heard of synthetic fuels? E.g. Qatar Airways uses synthetic kerosene as jet fuel.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Perhaps you could tell us the answer?

          BTW, Qatar’s synthetic jet fuel is derived from natural gas. Do you see that as where we should be going?

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Germans are already manufacturing methane from water by using surplus renewable electricity generation.

          • Bob_Wallace

            That is not how Qatar made their synth fuel.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            It is irrelevant what is the source of methane.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’ll copy that down for you…

            “BTW, Qatar’s synthetic jet fuel is derived from natural gas.”

          • Jouni Valkonen

            It is irrelevant what is the source of methane. You can make methane even from bullshit!

          • Bob_Wallace

            Methane can be harvested from landfills, municipal sewage, large scale composting, feed lot wastes, etc…..

          • Bob_Wallace

            Let me copy over from Wiki for you…

            “A variety of oils can be used to produce biodiesel. These include:

            Virgin oil feedstock – rapeseed and soybean oils are most commonly used, soybean oil accounting for about half of U.S. production.[66] It also can be obtained from Pongamia, field pennycress and jatropha and other crops such as mustard,jojoba, flax, sunflower, palm oil, coconut, hemp (see list of vegetable oils for biofuel for more information);

            Waste vegetable oil (WVO);

            Animal fats including tallow, lard, yellow grease, chicken fat,[67] and the by-products of the production of Omega-3 fatty acidsfrom fish oil.

            Algae, which can be grown using waste materials such as sewage[68] and without displacing land currently used for food production.

            Oil from halophytes such as Salicornia bigelovii, which can be grown using saltwater in coastal areas where conventional crops cannot be grown, with yields equal to the yields of soybeans and other oilseeds grown using freshwater irrigation[69]

            Sewage Sludge – The sewage-to-biofuel field is attracting interest from major companies like Waste Management and startups like InfoSpi, which are betting that renewable sewage biodiesel can become competitive with petroleum diesel on price.[70]”

      • different forms of travel, PV balloons =)

        • Bob_Wallace

          I’m all for alternative solutions, but we need to be realistic.

          People are going to continue to fly. Unless we legislate airplanes out of the sky. And it would take very extreme concern about climate change to make that happen.

          We need practical solutions. We need to give people alternatives which require minimal changes in function and cost. Some of those solutions won’t be perfect but if they can reduce our GHG emissions they will help.
          Go with the ‘better’ while we develop the ‘best’.

          • Rick Kargaard

            There will probably always be a place for internal combustion and jet engines.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “Always” is so very far in the future….

            My guess is that by 20 years from now we’ll be well along the path of phasing out the ICE for personal transportation. New ICEVs will probably be a very small niche product and used EVs will be selling at a premium over used ICEVs.

            I suspect we’ll follow the lead of others and will have started moving medium transportation to high speed rail. Air travel will be reserved for longer trips. Jets are likely to hold that portion of travel and we’ll need to look for better fuel for them.

            ICEs and jet engines will likely still have a place, but a greatly diminished place.

          • Doug Cutler

            Yes, the impulse to visit distant relatives and take religious pilgrimage, let alone tourism, vacationing and business, will be virtually impossible to persuade people away from voluntarily. Until such times as we pull LENR out of the mystic, develop compact Fusion reactors or invent batteries with energy densities off the Richter Scale we will need some form of carbon neutral biofuel for long distance air travel.

          • your wish is granted.

            LENR is getting industrial



            Swedish DoE (Elforsk) have tested and confirm it is real. US fund Cherokee have bought the technology for 12 million $ after test. they signed agreement with chinese Baoding HIDZ.
            DoD fund LENR research, and support SRI which support US Brillouin corp.
            NASA NARI studies LENR option for aircraft design.

            of course since the academics and media have failed to render the facts, lost in their dogma, they delay the tile they will be called stupid… the first big news on cold fusion will be in financial times or wall-street-journal (in fact it is already in Forbes, prnewswire)

          • Doug Cutler

            Yes, I follow LENR and am aware of MFMP, Hagelstein, Cherokee and all the rest. Suggestive developments true, but until LENR power actually hits the grid my wish is NOT granted and its all still in the mystic as far as I’m concerned. Meanwhile CO2 build up continues at a frightening pace and CleanTech is the only thing ACTUALLY online with a chance of overtaking fossil fuels.

            This is a CleanTech site and I’m not certain the best place to debate LENR. I’m not going to comment on that field further at this point.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “So, how did you spend your vacation?”

            “Well, we spent five days flying to Paris….”

          • Really?
            You can’t always get what you want
            But if you try sometimes well you just might find
            You get what you need

            I don’t care about your hypothetical trip to Paris if I’m choking on pollution.

          • Bob_Wallace

            And there are enough people who don’t care if you’re choking on pollution or if the planet will become very difficult for future generations. The Donald Trumps and the Donald Trump want-a-bees will fly.

            It’s in our best interest to find practical ways for them to fly, ways that damage the rest of us the least.

          • No, you tell the rich folks… No! Bad boy! You can’t do that because its not nice to other people. your idea sucks

  • Rick Kargaard

    I am also a little concerned with harvesting methods which often includes burning the fields to get rid of the leaves.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I wonder if leaves would be burned off in a ‘best practices’ practice.
      Perhaps it would be better to coarsely chop the cane in the field, press out the juice, and then use the remainder (including leaves) in a cellulose->fuel process.

      That’s not saying that I support the idea of cane->fuel. Fuel crops that displace food crops is not likely something that we can afford as population increases and climate change eats into our food growing ability.

  • Doug Cutler

    We should be very leery of biofuel that displaces agriculture or destroys wildlife habitat. On the face of it this system would seem to do the former. Desert algae or similar would be preferable.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      I think that synthetic fuels are cheaper than algae. Not in too distant future, we have enourmous surplus production of renewable electricity. This surplus electricity could be used to manufacture synthetic fuels.

      • Doug Cutler

        We presume you refer to carbon neutral or even carbon negative syn fuel. I often wonder what level of carbon tax it takes to make any kind of alt green fuels competitive. Any opinions?

        Also, doesn’t the commenter have a point that biomass is best left to replenish soil fertility?

        • Jouni Valkonen

          Yes, carbon negative. It is about 10 % more efficient to use concentrated exhaust of coal plants as a source of CO2 rather than try to extract CO2 from atmosphere.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You sure that 10% number is correct?

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Actually, it is close to 10 %-units less efficient, my mistake… You get about 55–60 % efficiency for methane production from water and CO2, but only 45–50 % efficiency, if CO2 is extracted from atmosphere.

            See e.g. Audi e-gas production efficiency estimates.

  • Rick Kargaard

    High yielding crops typically require high levels of fertilizer and use lots of water. However, they are renewable in the sense that hydrocarbons are produced by photosythesis of CO2, and water.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      It is good to remind that industrial agriculture requires fertilizers and pesticides.

  • Kyle Field

    The awkward intersection between next gen fuels and GMOs…

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Biodiesel is the holocaust of Nature!

    • Bob_Wallace

      We’re making biodiesel from used cooking oil.

      Please explain how this is “the holocaust of Nature!”.

      • Jouni Valkonen

        Uh, you are making 0.1 % of diesel consumption from used cooking oil. With more efficient recycling methods, it may be possible to increase the share to 0.2 %.

        To have some sense of proportions is good to have with when making world a better place.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You failed to explain how making biodiesel from used cooking oil is “the holocaust of Nature!”

          • Jouni Valkonen

            You failed to understand, that spent cooking oil is as a resource so meaningless that it does not have any relevance to anything. It can solve less than 0.1 % of our problems.

            There are other more productive uses for spent cooking oil than transportation that generates less pollution. E.g. it can be used for manufacturing food for the livestock. Pigs love spent cooking oil!

          • Bob_Wallace

            No, I understood the limited amount of used cooking oil in less than two minutes after it was first suggested.

            Now, would you please answer the question?

          • Jouni Valkonen

            And you admit that cooking oil is irrelevant. More fuel savings could be achieved if vehicles had made more efficient.

            Do you understand that there are myriad more productive uses for spent cooking oil than transportation fuel?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Are you incapable of admitting you made an incorrect claim?

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Are you incapable of admitting that you made an irrelevant claim?

          • Bob_Wallace

            I am totally able to admit when I’ve made a mistake.

            You made an absolute statement. I gave you one, of several, examples of biofuel that proved your statement incorrect.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            I did not make an absolute statement, but I made a probabilistic statement. Language is often confusing, because it is shortened severely, therefore there is always left lots of room for interpreting. But it is good to try to always evaluate the significance and avoid strawman arguments.

            Quantum logic is good skill to master, because in quantum logic there is nothing that is absolute, but everything is just probabilities.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “Biodiesel is the holocaust of Nature!”

            You did not say “Biodiesel might be….”

          • Jouni Valkonen

            No, I said that biodiesel is the holocaust of Nature. Every drop of biodiesel means a killed tree, either directly or indirectly. And if we produce e.g. 20 % of our fuel demand from biomaterials, this would mean the total annihilation of Nature.

            Like I pointed out, there are far more sustainable uses for spent cooking oil than to support old gasmobile infrastructure, because internal combustion engines are dead ends. It is far better on long term go to the electricfication of transportation than to ponder irrelevant solutions.

          • Bob_Wallace

            You continue to be wrong.

            There are biofuel routes which don’t require trees to die. For example, lumber mill waste is usable.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Utilizing lumber mill waste, makes lumber mills more profitable, therefore it gives financial incentive to cut more old growth forests. Even in this case there is an indirect contribution for deforestation.

            Only thing where biofuel production might make sense, are the environments where there are no natural forest growth. I.e. deserts or grass lands. But even in grass lands it is better to have large mammal driven ecosystem than biofuel plantations.

            So, in practice only deserts and vertical farms are good for biofuel production, but these of course require far more energy input that it is possible to get from produced biomaterial.

            So in practice we have only algae farming as a potential biofuel source, but it is hard to predict when technology is commercially feasible.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            There is another indirect effect for biofuel production in grass lands… this drives other agriculture, like cattle ranching, into forested areas. Like it is the case in Brazil. Bioethanol is mostly produced on most fertile grass lands, but naturally this gives incentive for other agriculture to push into forested Amazonian area, because there is no fertile grass lands for less profitable food production.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Come on. Why don’t you admit you misspoke rather than digging in deeper and deeper.

            Or at lease if you can’t admit fault then at least quit digging.

            Beef tallow. Chicken fat.

            Not going to cut old growth forests for biofuel.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Why do you not understand that there are more productive and more sustainable uses for biomaterial waste than transportation fuel?

            Transportation can and will be electrified in not too distant future. And we should use our every efforts to accelerate this development, because only electrification is the really sustainable way forward in a long term.

          • Bob_Wallace

            So your solution is to fly using petroleum?

            I think we’ve well established that your initial claim was bogus.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            That is untrue. And you do not have sense of proportions and relevance.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Yes, but there are far more productive and more sustainable uses for beef tallow and chicken fat than to use them as transportation fuel.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Glad that you finally admit that you were wrong.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Why you cannot admit that your claim does not have any practical relevance with real world but it is mere nitpicking and semantics?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s a plant making 75 million gallons of biodiesel from chicken fat.
            That’s 75 million gallons less petroleum diesel used.
            There are other plants turning chicken and beef waste products into fuel. It’s one part of the solution.

  • Luc

    May i bring in a brief note: biofuel are not “renewebles”!

    Tad W. Patzek
    Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
    The University of California
    “How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life?” September 10, 2007

    (The paper is really worth reading.)

    …..”Where Will the Agrofuel Biomass Come From?

    Collectively, the EU and the US have spent billions of dollars to be able to construct the ineffi-
    cient behemoth factories, which in the distant future might ingest megatonnes or gigatonnes of
    apparently free biomass “trash” and spit out priceless liquid transportation fuels. It is there-
    fore prudent to ask the following question: Where, how much, and for how long will the Earth
    produce the extra biomass to quench our unending thirst to drive 1 billion cars and trucks?
    The answer to this question is immediate and unequivocal: Nowhere, close to nothing, and
    for a very short time indeed. On the average, our planet has zero excess biomass at her disposal.”….

    • Bob_Wallace

      Biofuels are renewable. Some biofuels are renewable.

      It’s probably not the case that we could replace all our liquid fuels with renewable biofuels, but we can replace a percentage.

      • Jouni Valkonen

        It costs more than a ton of fossil oil to produce one ton of biodiesel in United States. Therefore biofuel production is hardly renewable.

        • Bob_Wallace

          How much petroleum does it take to turn used cooking oil into biodiesel?

          • Rick Kargaard

            Some diesel engines will run on cooking oil straight from the deep fryer. All you need is a filter and to keep it warm. May not be true of newer electronic injection systems.I have only seen it on older buses.

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