Ongoing Research

Researchers are analyzing over 400 varieties of sorghum grown in South Carolina, seeking the ones most easily converted into fuel. They are also using genetics and bioinformatics to find sorghum genes that maximize sugar release from the whole plant (not just grain and juice) enabling sorghum plant breeders to naturally engineer next-generation bioenergy feedstock to improve the crop-to-fuel conversion process.  In addition, discoveries of genetic control in sorghum, such as drought tolerance, pest resistance and improved yields, will aid producers of related crops, including corn, rice and turfgrass.

Processed switchgrass - a biofuel easily grown in South Carolina - is being tested to make bioethanol.  It is considered the most promising bioenergy crop for the state, based on research results related to biomass yield, drought tolerance and low input requirements.   The research is focused on freeing the plant sugars from cellulose, which plants use for cell walls.   A company in South Carolina, based on research results, has begun contracting with farmers for switch grass production, which will be shipped overseas as a coal replacement.

Switchgrass research is also underway to evaluate the efficiency of various bacteria to convert switchgrass to biofuels and bioproducts.  One of these bacteria, Thermotoga neapolitana, produces hydrogen.  Another would provide an enhanced capability to convert switchgrass to fermentable carbohydrates.  These carbohydrates would then be converted to ethanol and butanol in lab scale fermenters to assess ways to improve the efficiency of conversion of switchgrass to biofuels.

One of the current issues in producing biofuels from poplar is lignin degradation, and research is underway to explore ways to break down lignin more efficiently.  Researchers will characterize  cinnamyl alcohol dehydrongease genes from tulip poplar and their promoters, to test a novel approach to facilitate lignin digestibility.

A marine algal biomass production process, with the potential to produce ethanol and biodiesel, is being examined.  This process would potentially eliminate the need for large areas of high quality farm, forest and/or pasture land and subsequent harvest related costs, the need for intensive inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and energy inputs, and avoid the need to produce large quantities of low value solid fuels.  The process would also eliminate a number of negative environmental impacts from nutrient loss and greenhouse gas that would result from the production and degradation of synthetic fertilizers.