The United States has entered the “era of the bio-economy,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Gale Buchanan, who recently visited the Texas A&M University System campus at College Station.
“This could have the most important impact on agriculture in 150 years. To fully meet the nation’s needs for sustainable resources, we’ve got to look at all types of feedstock.”
Buchanan, along with Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, agribusiness leaders, and media representatives, were at the campus to tour the Texas A&M Agriculture effort in biofuel research.
The biofuel research effort goes beyond corn for ethanol, a multi-disciplinary effort that includes crops bred specifically for high-tonnage biomass for biofuel and generating electricity, engineering research into processing the biomass, and cropping systems that would allow farmers not just to grow the crops, but grow them profitably, says Juerg Blumenthal, a Texas A&M Agriculture agronomist.
The problem with some biofuel crops is that they may have been well thought out at the engineering/refining level, but not at the farming level, he says. The Texas A&M program is avoiding this problem by incorporating cropping system trials at the field level as dedicated biofuel systems are developed.
“It just makes common sense, that if you are talking about a dedicated energy crop, you have to develop a crop production method that farmers can make money with,” says Blumenthal, who has a joint appointment with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Texas Cooperative Extension. “If they can’t make money with it, they’re not going to grow it.
“The strength of the effort is to bring everything to the table, from crop development to engineering, from crop systems to genetics. My responsibility is to develop recommendations how to grow these crops profitably.”
One of the stars of the event was not a dignitary or a scientist, but a sorghum cultivar that has been bred to produce large amounts of biomass that can be converted into biofuel.
Though a lot of attention has been paid to using corn grain as a biofuel source — converting starch to ethanol, as the primary biofuel method, it may not the answer for Texas, says Dr. Bill McCutchen, deputy associate director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. Moreover, there are better alternatives for the Lone Star State.
Sorghum cultivars that have been bred to produce either a high tonnage of biomass or high sugar content are examples of such alternatives, he says.
One sorghum, developed by Dr. Bill Rooney, Experiment Station plant breeder, can produce from 15 tons to 20 dry tons of biomass per acre, McCutchen says.
Other crops have been considered for biofuel, some of which are exotic,while others were abandoned decades past because they weren’t profitable for growers. But some scientists are now considering the logistics of harvesting and transporting many of these proposed biofuel crops, McCutchen says.
He and others talk of bypassing current ethanol production methods, which rely on a fermentation process similar to that used to produce consumable alcohol from the sugars in grains such as corn. Instead, they consider going directly from cellulose, the main constituent of leaves and stalks, to ethanol and other biofuels.
These methods have the promise of converting all of the plant material — not just the grain — into biofuels or directly into electricity. Because very little plant material is wasted, these technologies should be more environmentally viable, McCutchen says.
Rooney says the sorghum lines he developed are part of a conventional breeding program and are not genetically engineered.
Development of a new variety takes from eight to 10 years or longer. Much of that time is spent just identifying which parent plants carry the gene responsible for the desired trait.
Plant geneticists at the Norman E. Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement have mapped the chromosomes of Rooney’s sorghums. Using these genetic maps, Rooney and other plant breeders hope to bypass many of the field trials to identify parent plants with the desired traits.
With this technique, they expect they can cut the time it takes to further develop high-tonnage sorghum by more than half, Rooney sats.
As a result, he hopes to have a drought-tolerant sorghum ready for farmers in a few years rather than a decade.
He says this process is not what’s commonly called “genetic engineering.” No genes from other species will be inserted into the genomic structure of the sorghums.
Before his appointment as USDA Under Secretary, Buchanan spent more than two decades as a research agronomist.
“I’m impressed with what I saw here,” he says. “The challenge is to identify feedstock and convert it into some form that we can take. It’s hard to stuff feedstocks into a gas tank. As a former scientist, it’s not enough to (put together) a good piece of research and publish a paper — That’s just the beginning.”
Buchanan says Title 7 of the new federal farm bill is expected to include up to $50 million in funding as part of a bioenergy/bioproducts initiative, with research and development conducted among select land grant and other universities.
It is “imperative” that the Unites States find ways to make fuel from feedstocks, including waste products, such as wood chips, Buchanan says.
Staples, who also spoke at the luncheon, says “I’m excited about what I’ve seen .We Texans can really capitalize and take advantage of this. For decades we have used what’s underground for fuel, and now it’s a reality to use what’s above the ground.”
More information on the Experiment Station’s biofuel initiative can be found at http://agresearch.tamu.edu/BioenergyInitiatives.htm  or by contacting Bob Avant, bioenergy program manager at [email protected]  or telephone 512/365-6591.