Known more as the source of table syrup and cattle feed, sweet sorghum is quickly becoming one of the region’s most promising feedstocks for making fuel ethanol, says Mark McLellan, dean for research with the University of Florida (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The university just won a four-year, $5.4 million federal grant to develop methods of producing energy from the familiar Southern crop.

The grant is part of a $47 million package announced earlier this month to support eight bioenergy projects nationwide, funded by USDA and the Department of Energy, McLellan says.

Research will be aimed at enhancing production of sweet sorghum as an energy crop. The crop will also be studied as a source of raw materials for chemicals used to make bioplastics and other products.

“There are many critical issues surrounding biofuels that are related to feedstock production,” McLellan says. “Yields, production efficiency, environmental impact, water requirements, are all important parts of this study. This project will help us understand how sweet sorghums line up as a feedstock candidate.”

The project will investigate the crop’s economic potential, sustainability and environmental impact, adds Wilfred Vermerris, principal investigator and agronomist at UF and the UF Genetics Institute.

“Sustainability and environmental impact have been of concern to many people looking at bioenergy production,” Vermerris says. “We don’t want to create more greenhouse gases than we would using petroleum production.”

Multiple varieties will be developed and evaluated to assess factors such as water needs, ability to grow in Florida soils, heat tolerance, and susceptibility to diseases and insect pests.

Researchers will look for varieties that yield large amounts of fermentable sugars, which can be fermented to produce fuel ethanol, he says.
They also plan to produce cellulosic ethanol, made from fiber in the plant’s crushed stalks using genetically engineered bacteria developed at UF by Lonnie Ingram, a microbiologist, and colleagues.

Some of the experiments will take place at the Highlands EnviroFuels commercial-scale biorefinery in Lake Placid, FL.