The US Department of Energy (DoE) has granted a team of researchers money to create enhanced sugarcane (also called ‘energycane’) and elephant grass to increase the production of green fuels. The new crops can reach up to 20% oil content, compared to less than an tenth of a percent in conventional crops, says the university.
Announced 25 February, the new research project, called Renewable Oil Generated with Ultra-productive Energycane (ROGUE), is made up of researchers from the University of Illinois (UoI), Brookhaven National Lab, the University of Florida and Mississippi State University. The team is applying engineering principles to speed up and optimise the design of biological systems, a method known as synthetic biology.
“If fully successful, these crops could produce as much as 15 times more biodiesel per unit of land compared to soybeans, a food crop that currently produces half of our nation’s biodiesel,” ROGUE Director Stephen Long said in a statement.
“Redirecting these plants to produce oil rather than sugar will enable us to make full use of these productive crops for biodiesel and biojet fuel production,” added Li-Qing Chen, an assistant professor of plant biology at UoI.
Previous work, also funded by the DoE, has returned crops with 8% oil content. ROGUE is going to expand on this by improving the oil content in the stems of crop. Oil in the stem will then be extracted with patented technology from UoI.
“According to our models, ROGUE crops will be much more productive and profitable per acre than corn or soybeans,” said Vijay Singh, director of the UoI’s Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory, who will lead the project’s techno-economic analyses and processing technologies.
Enhanced sustainability is another goal for the team, who are trying to improve the crops’ photosynthetic efficiency. This helps to off-set the potential downsides of increased oil content like lower yields or weaker plant defences. Improved efficiency also reduces water and nitrogen consumption.
“Photosynthesis is the process ultimately underlying the production of all our food and much of our fibre and increasing amounts of our fuels,” said Don Ort, Robert Emerson Professor in Plant Biology and Crop Sciences, who will co-lead the project’s photosynthetic work with Long. “By improving this process, we can fortify these crops to create a more efficient, productive, and sustainable source of bioenergy.”