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.
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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