Illinois scientists have genetically engineered sugarcane to create a more valuable source of biofuel than ever before.

The multi-institutional team, led by the University of Illinois, in the Plants Engineered to Replace Oil in Sugarcane and Sweet Sorghum (PETROSS) research project have created a plant that not only produced oil in its leaves and stems for biodiesel production, it produced more sugar for ethanol production.

The dual-purpose bioenergy crops are predicted to be more than five times more profitable per acre than soybeans and two times more profitable than corn. More importantly, the sugarcane can be grown on marginal land not suitable for food crops.

Illinois is a hothouse of agricultural and biological engineering. Its Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO) comprises more than 500 members from life sciences companies, universities, academic institutions and service providers in Illinois and the surrounding Midwest. As home to a $9 billion crop business, it is a giant market for bio-seed products, as well as corn, soybean, feed grain and agricultural production. Combined with its research capabilities, it has become a bioscience powerhouse, delivering innovation in bioenergy, biotechnology, nutritional products, food and agricultural applications, alternative fuels, industrial solutions and environmental sustainability.

“Instead of fields of oil pumps, we envision fields of green plants sustainably producing biofuel in perpetuity on our nation’s soil, particularly marginal soil that is not well suited to food production,” said Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences, a pioneer of this work at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.

“As it can take 10-15 years for this technology to reach farmers’ fields, we need to develop these solutions to ensure our fuel security today and as long as we need liquid fuels into the future.”

The PETROSS scientists ran the modified sugarcane through a juicer, extracting about 90 per cent of the sugar and 60 per cent of the oil from the plant. Using a patented technique, that mixture was subsequently fermented to produce ethanol, then treated with organic solvents to recover the oil.

So far the group has engineered sugarcane with 13 per cent oil, 8 per cent of which is the oil that can be converted into biodiesel. According to the project’s analyses, plants with just 5 per cent oil would produce an extra 123 gallons of biodiesel per acre than soybeans and 350 more gallons of ethanol per acre than corn.

Co-author Vijay Singh, Director of the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at Illinois, added: “The oil composition is comparable to that obtained from other feedstocks like seaweed or algae that are being engineered to produce oil.”

The PETROSS project is now pushing to achieve 20 per cent oil production, the theoretical maximum, with the aid of commercial investors.

Source: University of Illinois PETROSS Project, New Atlas)