By TIM THORNBERRY
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The use of switchgrass as a possible biofuel feedstock has gained much attention over the last few years. In Tennessee, research efforts have gained national attention.
A University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) project was recently named one of 66 award winners by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as being potentially transformational in its field, according to information from the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
A press release from the DOE stated the projects were selected by the agency’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) and will receive a total of $130 million in funding through its “OPEN 2012” program. The UTIA one-year grant will be more than $441,000.
“With ARPA-E and all of the Department of Energy’s research and development efforts, we are determined to attract the best and brightest minds at our country’s top universities, labs and businesses to help solve the energy challenges of this generation,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the time the awards were announced.
“The 66 projects selected today represent the true mission of ARPA-E: swinging for the fences and trying to hit home runs to support development of the most innovative technologies and change what’s possible for America’s energy future.”
Dr. Neal Stewart, UT professor of plant sciences, is the lead investigator on this project. He said the idea is, through genetic engineering, to improve the digestibility of switchgrass cell walls for conversion to sugars and biofuel. The hope of the research is to speed this development, from what is normally a long process, and make the plant more productive.
Stewart explained the genetic engineering of any plant involves adding a new gene to confer a new trait using biotechnology, or silencing the expression of a gene that is already in the plant. Thus far, the research has resulted in a line of switchgrass that produces twice the amount of biofuel as the wild plant, he noted. That is significant, with these plants already being in the field test phase.
“The problem with the way plants are genetically engineered and then tested, it takes a long time. It’s basically a gene-by-gene process and then you really don’t know what you have until a year or two or more after the plants are produced,” Stewart said.
The goal of the project represents a new concept in genetic engineering and screening. If the system works, the process will go much faster, he explained. “Basically we could engineer single cells in a cell culture and then analyze those cells and they could tell us what the resulting plant will look like.”
Genetic engineering of a plant is not new and has been done for years involving crops including corn and soybeans. If this “high-speed” engineering method works, however, it could be used with other plants besides switchgrass. When considering a plant to use as a possible biofuel, Stewart said switchgrass is a good choice because it is widely adapted and grows quickly.
“Of course, there is no one perfect next generation feedstock crop, but this is the one we’ve picked and it seems to be a good decision,” he said.
Stewart pointed out that in the “switchgrass belt” that runs from Oklahoma to Tennessee and Virginia, there is much marginal land not used for more high-value row crops where farmers could use this native grass to help meet some of the energy challenges facing the country, long-term.
This project was selected because it has the potential to be “game-changing” in energy technology, but Stewart said the problem with the next generation biofuel is several problems have to be solved at once.
“You have to get a feedstock that makes sense in particular locations. You have to get technologies developed to convert the biomass into something of value and then, finally, you have to set up the logistics for everything,” he said.
Stewart added there is also the consideration of the cost for building expensive processing plants, which are still a bit of a gamble because switchgrass is not a real crop. “Maybe it will be someday, but it ain’t corn and it ain’t cotton,” he said.
But he is excited about the findings and the future of the project, as Tennessee continues to lead the way in this type of genetic engineering. For more information, go to http://renew