Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are part of a multi-institutional team working to increase sugarcane's geographic range, boost its photosynthetic rate by 30 percent and turn it into an oil-producing crop for biodiesel production, the university reported Monday.
"Biodiesel is attractive because, for example, with soybean, once you've pressed the oil out it's fairly easy to convert it to diesel," said plant biology Professor Stephen P. Long. "You could do it in your kitchen."
But the problem is soybean isn't productive enough to meet the nation's need for renewable diesel fuels, he said, which is why the team wants to turn sugarcane and sorghum -- two of the most productive crop plants known -- into even more productive, oil-generating plants.
"Sugarcane and sorghum are exceptionally productive plants, and if you could make them accumulate oil in their stems instead of sugar, this would give you much more oil per acre," Long said in a release.
The researchers, genetically modifying sugarcane to boost natural oil production, have managed to increase production to about 1.5 percent.
"That doesn't sound like a lot, but at 1.5 percent, a sugarcane field in Florida would produce about 50 percent more oil per acre than a soybean field," Long said. "There's enough oil to make it worth harvesting."
To boost cold tolerance, researchers are crossing sugarcane with Miscanthus, a related perennial grass that can grow as far north as Canada. While the new hybrid is more cold-tolerant than sugarcane, further crosses are needed to restore the other attributes of sugarcane while preserving its cold-tolerance, Long said.