University of Georgia researchers were recently awarded two grants totaling $2.5 million to help find better ways to produce biofuels from switchgrass and sunflowers.

UGA was one of eight schools to receive grants from a program jointly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Energy. The program aims to accelerate research in biomass genomics and further the use of cellulosic plant material for bioenergy and biofuels.

"Developing cost-effective means of producing cellulosic biofuels on a national scale poses major scientific challenges. These grants will help in developing the type of transformational breakthroughs needed in basic science to make this happen,” said Raymond Orbach, a DOE undersecretary.

"USDA is committed to fostering a sustainable domestic biofuels industry at home in rural America," said Gale Buchanan, a USDA undersecretary. "These grants will broaden the sources of energy from many crops as well as improve the efficiency and options among renewable fuels."

The UGA grants were awarded to scientists in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

CAES professor and Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholar Steven Knapp, UGA researchers Jeff Dean and Joe Nairn, DOE researcher Mark Davis and USDA researcher Laura Marek received $1.2 million to study the genomics of sunflower.

“Certain wild species of sunflower produce woody stems and high biomass yields, often reaching heights of 18 to 21 feet,” Knapp said. “Our grant focuses on understanding genetic mechanisms underlying wood production and biomass accumulation in sunflower.”

Jeffrey Bennetzen, the Norman and Doris Giles/Georgia Research Alliance professor of molecular genetics in FCAS, received the second grant for $1.295 million. It will fund a cooperative project with Katrien Devos, a CAES professor of crop and soil science and plant biology. They hope to develop genetic and genomic tools to study foxtail millet, a close relative of switchgrass.

Switchgrass is an excellent source of biomass for producing ethanol. Unlike corn, which is used now to make most U.S. ethanol, switchgrass is a perennial that grows on poor soil with little water, fertilizer or pesticides.

“Ethanol from switchgrass is a very different story from ethanol from maize grain,” Bennetzen said. “Ethanol from maize grain requires large inputs and produces no net carbon capture to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Switchgrass captures carbon dioxide very effectively and will not lead to increased food costs because it does not take acreage away from food production.”

But switchgrass has limitations, he said. Researchers need to find more efficient ways to convert lignocellulose, the material that makes up wood, leaves, stems, into ethanol. Learning more about foxtail millet, he said, will help. It’s easier to study than switchgrass.

“Once the foxtail millet genome is sequenced, we will be able to quickly find the genes involved in making lignocellulose in foxtail millet, and this will make them easy to find in switchgrass as well,” he said. “We can then study these genes and find ways to improve this performance so that switchgrass is easier to convert to ethanol.”

Improving this process is part of another project at UGA called the BioEnergy Science Center.

“For the average Georgian, the outcome of the research in this project will be less expensive liquid fuels, less dependence on foreign oil, lower food costs and less release of carbon dioxide into the environment,” Bennetzen said. “We won't see these outcomes in the next year or two, but there is every reason to believe that they will come into effect over the next five to 10 years.”