Nebraska researches part of push to turn sorghum into fuel

A sorghum field near Farwell (NTV News)

Two Nebraska plant scientists could have a hand in turning sorghum into jet fuel.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is one of 15 institutions partnering with the University of Illinois in the $104 million Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation.

As members, two UNL researches will worth for the next five years to expand the oil-producing capability of the sorghum plant.

Tom Clemente, agronomy and horticulture professor, said tobacco uses similar technology.

"If you can translate those technologies into a biomass crop like sorghum or sugarcane or miscanthus, and you can get anything more than 5% total oil in that vegetative tissues the stalks mainly well then you have something could be clearly suitable for the marketplace," said Clemente.

Researchers say it could mean a big economic benefit for that state's agriculture producers in the future, but it all starts with your tax dollars.

"It all starts in public sector research because we have the flexibility of time. We don't have to report to a board of directors every five years, worry about what's going to happen in the stock market. We're in it for the long haul," said Clemente.

Biochemistry professor Edgar Cahoon said this project is funded through a grant from the Department of Energy's Bioenergy Research Center. The Nebraska team expects to receive slightly more than $4 million for their research during the next five years.

If that funding it cut, Clemente said consumers won't see the impact right away.

"The less investments you make into fundamental research, at the end of the day you will see less products coming out 10 to 15 years later, so the immediate cutbacks you will not see,” he said.

Their goal is to genetically enhance certain sorghum species so that the stems and leaves contain more oil and less starch. If they can do that, sorghum could rival soybeans in terms of oil production per acre.

"Vegetable oil is more energy-dense than carbohydrates like starch," Cahoon explained.

Clemente said sorghum is a sturdy, drought-tolerant crop that can be grown on more marginal lands than other farm crops.

Nebraska's research is to focus on sweet sorghum and biomass sorghum, plants whose leaves and stems now are used to make ethanol. According to UNL, Clemente and Cahoon are among researchers nationally who are investigating whether sorghum's novel chemistry and lignin content could produce high-value molecules that could replace petroleum in lubricants and plastics – even jet fuel.

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