Science

Cold-tolerant oil-producing sugarcane could be one sweet source of biofuel

Cold-tolerant oil-producing su...
Scientists are working on a biofuel-producing strain of sugarcane (Photo: Shutterstock)
Scientists are working on a biofuel-producing strain of sugarcane (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Scientists are working on a biofuel-producing strain of sugarcane (Photo: Shutterstock)
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Scientists are working on a biofuel-producing strain of sugarcane (Photo: Shutterstock)

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.

Source: University of Illinois

15 comments
anobium
Sugar can be fermented to produce alcohol which when distilled can be used for motor fuel, so why bother with oil?
Buck H
@anobium - partly because oil has many other uses beyond motor fuel, and because algae-based conversion is more efficient than fermentation.
Keith Pelletier
@anobium...I believe oil can be extracted directly from the plant and used with little additional processing. Distilling alcohol is more energy-intensive and the resultant product produces less energy than it took to make it. This is one of many reasons why the ethanol mandate should be phased out.
ezeflyer
Could be the new GE Malaleuca or worse. Why don't genetic engineers stick to curing cancer and things of benefit instead of experimenting with our stressed out environment?
Observer101
What becomes of the bi-products? Perhaps they can be dried, and compressed and utilized a "logs" for fireplaces as well as home heating in the future. (if mixed with the correct mixtures of weed and alcohol, they might just burn pretty cleanly? ) Something to think about, as I am certain there are tons of waste after extracting the fuel from the plants...
chidrbmt
Sugarcane is a far superior crop to use for fuel. Using corn for such is a bad,political joke. One uses a gallon of oil to produce a gallon of corn alcohol by the time it reaches a vehicle with only 2/3rds of BTUs. Good luck with the research.
Xolin
"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..."
Sugarcane is ALREADY being used extensively for the production of biofuel in both Australia and Brazil. So there's no COULD about it; it already is used as a source of biofuel.
Slowburn
Biofuel because food is overrated.
apprenticeearthwiz
This is certainly not the way of the future. It's redundant before it's even fully developed because burning stuff for energy is yesterdays technology.
physics314
Biofuel, n., a buzzword for burning wood, shrubs, grass, and animal feces.
The average annual solar efficiency of corn-ethanol production is less than 0.1%. The best solar-to-biofuel efficiency one can practically get is 2-3%. This does not include the energy cost of reversing environmental damage (soil depletion and ocean dead zones), caused by intensive agriculture. The idea that any meaningful fraction of the world's energy demand can be met via these processes is a pure pipe dream, as just the required land area can be more than is physically available, not to mention economically affordable.