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North Carolina Biotechnology Center receives $1.87m grant for sorghum-to-biofuel research

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC), aided by a $1.87 million (€1.7m) federal grant, has embarked on a three-year project to study the production of sorghum as biomass for fuel and high-value chemicals in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The project, involving scientists at land-grant universities in two Southeast US states and numerous industry partners, is enabled by the grant to NCBC’s Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center (BCCC).

The award was the largest of seven announced by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

It is also the only award that did not go to a university – a testament to the specialised capabilities and personnel at the predominantly state-funded Biotech Center.

“This three-year grant funding is a huge boost for advancing our ongoing partnership effort that will help farmers throughout the region add this important cash crop to their rotation plans, creating a ‘growforce’ for the development of a cellulose-to-biochemicals processing facility,” said NCBC's Paul Ulanch, executive director of BCCC.

With this new grant, BCCC brings together North Carolina’s two largest economic drivers, agriculture and biotechnology, to maximise the fibrous sorghum stalk material for use as high-value feedstock.

The centre also says it propels NCBC's commitment to find ways to "lift all boats" to maximise value from farmland in North Carolina and the entire Southeast US region.

More than 90% of the grant funding will be channelled through BCCC to pay for research carried out by six investigators – three from North Carolina State University and three from Virginia Tech.

NCBC is coordinating the research activities, with guidance from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Bioenergy Research Initiative, the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, sorghum breeding programmes and seed companies, farmer/grower networks, and companies in the cellulosic ethanol and specialty chemicals industries.

The BCCC award is part of a $10 million distribution of USDA/DOE grants in the federal Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), a joint programme through NIFA and the DOE.

The goal of the BRDI is to develop economically and environmentally sustainable sources of biomass, increase the availability of renewable fuels and bio-based products to help replace the need for petrol and diesel in vehicles.