Scientists have started a project to develop grasses that tolerate drought for use in biofuels. It’s part of a five-year, $12 million study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Andrew Leakey with the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is part of the study. Dr. Leakey told EarthSky:
Our team is really focused on how you produce the greatest amounts of grass biomass. In other words, if you went out and harvested it, how you can produce the greatest amount of dry material at the end of the year – and do that on the smallest possible land area with the smallest possible environmental impact.
So that’s what we’re really trying to explore, how you can maximize production. Maybe you’re not using the best soils and not having to irrigate as much as you might otherwise. Maybe you’re not having to put on too much fertilizer.
Those are very important features in producing a biofuel that actually has a net environmental benefit.
Dr. Leakey will study a grass commonly known as green foxtail millet to find sequences in its genome linked to drought tolerance. Leakey said that this grass is like a lab rat for what are known as C4 grasses, closely related to other grasses in biofuels research like switchgrass and Miscanthus. Leakey said:
Our big-scale objective really is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, which at the minute are largely imported from outside the country. We’re also really trying to slow the release of carbon emissions and slow the climate change that those are causing.
Bottom line: Andrew Leakey with the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is part of a five-year, $12 million study by the U.S. Department of Energy of grasses useful for biofuels that can grow with as little land, fertilizer, and water as possible.