The University of Florida has received a four-year $5.4 million federal grant to develop methods of producing energy, such as ethanol, from sweet sorghum. The grant is part of a $47 million package funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) designed to support projects that hopefully help the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign oil while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The research team will focus on turning sweet sorghum into ethanol as well as explore it a a source of raw materials for biochemicals. Mark McLellan, dean of research with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said that sweet sorghum is one of the most promising feedstocks to make biofuel.
According to Wilfred Vermerris, principal investigator and an associate professor with UF’s agronomy department and UF Genetics Institute, the project will also investigate sweet sorghum’s economic potential, sustainability and environmental impacts. As part of the study, the team will develop and evaluate multiple varieties to assess factors such as water needs, ability to grow in Florida soils, heat tolerance, and susceptibility to diseases and insect pests. The researchers will also look for varieties that yield large amounts of fermentable sugars, which can be fermented to produce fuel ethanol.
“Sustainability and environmental impact have been of concern to many people looking at bioenergy production,” said Vermerris. “We don’t want to create more greenhouse gases than we would using petroleum production.”
The team will also produce cellulosic ethanol from the fiber in the plant’s crushed stalks using genetically engineered bacteria developed at UF by Lonnie Ingram, a distinguished professor in the microbiology and cell science department. Ingram is one of the co-principal investigators for the project and will coordinate juice and biomass processing experiments at the UF Ethanol Pilot Plant in Gainesville and the Stan Mayfield Biorefinery in Perry.
Tampa-based firm U.S. EnviroFuels LLC will also participate in the project led by president and CTO Bradley Krohn. He will coordinate economic and life cycle analyses needed to assess the profit potential and environmental impact of the processes. Several of the experiments will take place at the Highlands EnviroFuels commercial-scale biorefinery in Lake Placid, Fla.