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Field day focuses on plants for biofuels, biochemicals

“New crops for new uses” was the focus of a field day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit on Oct. 2.

“New crops for new uses” was the focus of a field day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Sugarcane Research Unit on Oct. 2.

The featured crops were energy cane and sweet sorghum, both high in biomass for use in producing biofuels and biochemicals.

The field day, co-sponsored by the LSU AgCenter, was part of an outreach program conducted by the AgCenter Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing as part of a $17 million grant from the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

The objectives of the grant include producing two crops high in biomass -- energy cane and sweet sorghum -- for biofuels and biochemicals. Other considerations include how much per acre growers can earn for their feedstocks and how much buyers will have to pay per gallon for fuels or per pound for chemicals, said Vadim Kochergin, a research engineer in the AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute and director of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing.

Researchers are looking at energy cane and sweet sorghum to produce sustainable biofuel systems, said LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist Kenneth Gravois. Energy cane is high-fiber sugarcane that can be adapted to produce chemicals and biofuels.

The work is a continuation of what the Louisiana sugar industry has traditionally done, producing sugar from cane juice and using bagasse -- the fibrous part of the plant -- as fuel for sugar mills, said Ben Legendre, head of the LSU AgCenter Audubon Sugar Institute.

“We’re looking at bagasse as a source of chemicals and looking at the juice for producing second-generation biofuels,” Legendre said of the work with energy cane.

The United States has a history of an abundant, stable food supply, said LSU AgCenter crops specialist John Kruse. The federal grant supports efforts for creating a system of producing fuel from renewable sources.

“Through research, we want to test the northern limit of energy cane,” Kruse said.

Researchers hope the high-fiber energy cane can sustain harsher winters than sugarcane, and new varieties have to be selected to adapt to those conditions and provide appropriate yields, Gravois said. “The quality components of yield are yet to be determined for a biomass crop.”

LSU AgCenter agronomist Brenda Tubana is investigating how energy cane responds to various cultural practices and soil fertility management.

Because energy cane is expanding to areas outside the traditional sugarcane-growing areas, researchers are interested in learning about how the new crop will perform in other climates.

“Nutrients behave differently with different soil pH,” Tubana said. Researchers want to know how changing nitrogen fertilizer rates for higher yield affects quality.

The focus of the five-year grant program, now in its second year, is in supplying year-round feedstock on marginal lands without competing with food crops.

“We want to learn how to grow a crop on marginal soils with minimal inputs,” said LSU AgCenter researcher Sonny Viator. “We want to discover how to produce a profitable crop for growers with minimal tillage, minimal fertilizer and little or no irrigation. This could reduce growers’ use of high-priced inputs.”

Viator is studying the productivity of various sweet sorghum hybrids with differing maturity dates. By spreading the harvest from midsummer to the first frost, the crop could sustain biofuel production during the time of year when energy cane is out of season.

One advantage of energy cane over traditional sugarcane varieties is the speed at which energy cane can move from breeding programs to commercial production, said USDA plant breeder Anna Hale.

From an energy perspective, energy cane can be ready for production after the first generation of hybridization rather than after several generations needed to develop a commercial sugarcane variety.

The field day also served as a pre-meeting tour for the 2012 national conference of the Sun Grant Initiative being held in New Orleans. Sun Grant is a national network of land-grant universities and federally funded laboratories working together to further a biobased economy.

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