Under new grant, UNL will lead $13.5M research effort to improve sorghum as biofuel source

Source: By David Hendee / World-Herald Bureau • Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2015

LINCOLN — Looking a few decades down the road, sorghum could fuel your car and more corn — now a significant source of biofuel — return to your dinner plate.

That’s the vision of the U.S. Energy Department grant awarded to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to lead a national research effort to improve sorghum as a sustainable source for biofuel production.

The $13.5 million, five-year grant takes a comprehensive approach to better understand how plants and microbes interact and to learn which sorghum germplasm grows better with less water and nitrogen, said Daniel Schachtman, professor of agronomy and horticulture and director of UNL’s Center for Biotechnology.

Schachtman and other UNL officials announced the grant during a campus ceremony Tuesday at the Beadle Center, the university’s state-of-the-art biotechnology facility.

Crude oil is cheap now and there may be no pressing need for a biofuel, Schachtman said.

“But in 10 to 15 years they (U.S. Energy Department officials) want to create an environment where the U.S. has a very stable base of biofuels,’’ he said. “They want to end up at the end with a fuel that’s very cost-effective to produce from a cellulosic biomass.’’

Most U.S. biofuels currently are made from corn, but sorghum varieties create more biomass for cellulosic ethanol. That makes it a top contender to replace corn and relieve pressure on an important global food source, Schachtman said.

“It’s becoming more recognized that we need to move biofuel production to more marginal lands, so they don’t compete with food crops,” he said. “You also don’t want to use a ton of water or fertilizer to keep the system productive.”

This isn’t the red- or white-headed and fence-high grain sorghum, also known as milo, familiar to travelers across Nebraska and the Great Plains.

This so-called “energy sorghum’’ is a fast-growing plant that reaches 15 feet high in one growing season but produces no colorful, flowering seed head. Instead, it produces thick stalks and a lot of biomass — call it plant material — ideal for feeding future cellulosic biofuels factories.

Researchers are growing this sky-high sorghum in UNL test plots near Mead.

UNL is teaming with scientists at Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Washington State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University, Clemson University, Iowa State University, Colorado State University and the Energy Department’s Joint Genome Institute.

The team will experiment to find the genetic and microbial combinations with the greatest productivity benefits. Working together, researchers expect to accomplish far more than is possible at any single institution, Schachtman said.

Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the grant is payoff for the university’s strong research programs in plant molecular physiology, plant breeding, advanced genomics, computational analysis and remote sensing.

“Now the strategy is being rewarded as a federal agency is recognizing that developing sustainable food, water and energy systems is one of our greatest scientific challenges,’’ he said.

Ronnie Green, vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the work UNL researchers are doing daily is changing the world.

Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development, said only by collaborating across disciplines and institutions can solutions to complex challenges be found.

Ismail Dweikat, a UNL sorghum breeder and professor of agronomy and horticulture, and Arthur Zygielbaum, remote sensing expert and associate research professor of natural resources, are teaming with Schachtman on the project.

Nebraska will be the focal point of a lot of the work, said Schachtman, a plant molecular physiologist who came to UNL in 2014.

Barbara Kliment, executive director of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board, said the ethanol industry is excited about sorghum’s potential.

Perlman said the project presents a huge opportunity for Nebraska. Nationally, the state ranks No. 1 in the number of irrigated crop acres, second in biofuels production and fourth in food production.