A University of Florida-led research team has won a four-year, $5.4 million federal grant to develop methods of producing energy from a familiar southern crop, sweet sorghum.

Known as a source of table syrup and cattle feed, sweet sorghum is also one of the region’s most promising feedstocks for making fuel ethanol, said Mark McLellan, dean for research with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The grant is part of a $47 million package announced earlier this month to support eight bioenergy projects nationwide, McLellan said. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, the package is part of a federal effort to reduce dependence on imported oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with petroleum fuels.

The team will focus on research aimed at enhancing production of sweet sorghum as an energy crop, he said. The team will also explore sweet sorghum 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 said. “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 sweet sorghum’s economic potential, sustainability and environmental impact, said Wilfred Vermerris, principal investigator and an associate professor with UF’s agronomy department and the UF Genetics Institute.

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