Sugarcane grows like crazy, so if it could be used as a source of biofuel, well ... not only might it produce higher yields than other crops, but it could conceivably do so using less land. With that in mind, scientists from the University of Illinois are creating a strain of the plant that produces more oil, gets more energy from the sun, and can be grown in colder climates.

Led by plant biologist Prof. Stephen P. Long, the researchers have introduced genes to sugarcane plants, that boost the oil production in their stems by 1.5 percent. Ultimately, he hopes to see that raised to around 20 percent. While 1.5 isn't a huge number, Long explains, "At 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean field." Soybeans are currently a major source of biofuel, although Long believes that they can't meet US energy demands.

Additionally, his team genetically engineered sugarcane plants to be 30 percent more photosynthetically efficient, meaning that they get 30 percent more growth energy from a given amount of sunlight than regular sugarcane.

The scientists have also cross-bred sugarcane with a perennial grass known as Miscanthus, which is hardy as far north as Canada. They note that more breeding will be required to restore some of the cane's other attributes, however.

Down the road, they hope to combine all of what they've done into a single strain of sugarcane. They have also been developing an enhanced type of sorghum, which like sugarcane is very fast-growing.

Long's team includes colleagues from Brookhaven National Laboratory, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska.