Creating Super Oil-Producing Sugarcane

If the researchers achieve their goal, growers will be able to meet 147 percent of the U.S. mandate for renewable fuels by growing the modified sugarcane on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20 percent of the green zone on the map).  Graphic courtesy Stephen P. Long

If the researchers achieve their goal, growers will be able to meet 147 percent of the U.S. mandate for renewable fuels by growing the modified sugarcane on abandoned land in the southeastern United States (about 20 percent of the green zone on the map). Graphic courtesy Stephen P. Long

One of the biggest problems with alternative energy sources is that they’re horrendously inefficient. Solar cells are lucky to get above 20 percent in the best conditions while biodiesel plants barely rise to a single percent in terms of producing oil, let alone the losses incurred after converting to fuel.

Luckily, we have really smart people working on both fronts. A team from Soitec recently set the world record with a solar cell efficiency of 44.7 percent. And on the plant side of the fuel equation, researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Nebraska are making similar strides.

During a recent energy summit, Stephen Long, University of Illinois professor of plant biology, presented progress on using genetic engineering to get sugarcane—one of the most productive crop plants known to man—to produce oil instead of sugar.

According to Long, getting oil out of a soybean and converting it to diesel is easy; you could do it in your kitchen. But soybeans don’t produce enough oil to make them economically viable as an alternative energy solution.

So Long and his colleagues inserted some oil-producing genes into sugarcane and managed to increase the plant’s oil production up to 1.5 percent. That may not seem like a lot, but a sugarcane field in Florida would make 50 percent more oil than the same field planted with soybeans.

Not bad.

But they’re not stopping there. The team has set a goal of oil production efficiency in sugarcane and sorghum up to 20 percent. And they’ve also used genetic engineering to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of the plants by 30 percent. And they’re crossing these oil-producing, sun-garbling mutants with Miscanthus—a related perennial grass that can withstand cold temperatures and grows as far north as Canada.

So in the not too distant future we could have a plant that can thrive anywhere in the United States and produce enough oil to make it a worthwhile cash crop of companies to pursue to help replace fossil fuels.

But, you know, fuck GMOs.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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