Making Sugarcane into the Next Biodiesel Feedstock

Sugarcane could be a better feedstock for biodiesel than soybeans, but it only grows in warm weather areas. But researchers at the University of Illinois believe they have a way to grow what could be a rich, oil-producing variety of sugarcane in colder climates.

long1“Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you’ve pressed the oil out it’s fairly easy to convert it to diesel,” said Stephen P. Long, a University of Illinois professor of plant biology and leader of the initiative. “You could do it in your kitchen.”

But soybean isn’t productive enough to meet the nation’s need for renewable diesel fuels, Long said.

“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 said.

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 percent.

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

The multi-institutional team aims to increase the oil content of sugarcane stems to about 20 percent by using genetic engineering to increase photosynthetic efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum by 30 percent, and then cross sugarcane with Miscanthus to allow it to be grown in northern regions.

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