Those choices at the pump may look a little greener in the future as a Kansas State University research team is conducting a study that could eventually add “plant” to the list of fuel options.
In early August, four faculty members from K-State’s College of Agriculture and College of Engineering received an $800,000 grant from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Energy under the Plant Feedstocks Genomics for Bioenergy research program. The grant funds a three-year study that will provide the genetic groundwork necessary for potentially turning sorghum into biofuel by increasing the plant’s biomass yield.
“Bioenergy is a very hot topic and there’s a lot of talk about its possibilities,” said Jianming Yu, associate professor of agronomy and leader of the study. “But a lot of work still needs to be done since it’s still a new field. And unless genetics is improved, industries probably won’t want to get involved because there are still too many unknowns.”
Yu is conducting the sorghum bioenergy study with K-State’s Tesfaye Tesso, assistant professor of agronomy; Scott Staggenborg, professor of agronomy; and Donghai Wang, professor of biological and agricultural engineering, along with researchers from the University of Minnesota and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service plant genetic resources conservation unit. K-State is one of nine universities chosen nationally to participate in genomics studies related to bioenergy. Potential benefits from these university studies range from decreasing oil imports to optimizing crops that can tolerate drought, poor soil and other unfavorable conditions.
Over the next three years the K-State team will build a genetic database on biomass sorghum, a type of sorghum that contains little grain and is mostly leaves and stalk. Biomass sorghum provides a large amount of high-quality feedstock, which can produce eco-friendly fuels, according to Staggenborg.
While many grain crops have had their genetics and production refined and documented for decades, the K-State sorghum team essentially has to start from scratch.