The team will develop and evaluate multiple varieties 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 said.

They also plan to produce what’s called cellulosic ethanol, made from fiber in the plant’s crushed stalks using genetically engineered bacteria developed at UF by Lonnie Ingram, a distinguished professor in the microbiology and cell science department, and colleagues.

Ingram is one of seven co-principal investigators for the project and will coordinate juice and biomass processing experiments at the UF Ethanol Pilot Plant in Gainesville and the Stan Mayfield Biorefinery in Perry.

The other co-principal investigators are Jim Preston and K.T. Shanmugam of the microbiology and cell science department, who will work closely with Ingram; Amelia Dempere of the materials science and engineering department, who will coordinate characterization of biobased materials other than fuel; John Erickson of the agronomy department, who will oversee field and greenhouse experiments on water use in sweet sorghum; and Zhaohui Tong of the agricultural and biological engineering department, who will investigate methods of making biopolymers from the waste stream of cellulosic ethanol production.

The team plans to test promising sorghum varieties on a commercial scale. So Vermerris invited Bradley Krohn, president and chief technical officer of the Tampa-based firm U.S. EnviroFuels LLC to participate in the project as a co-principal investigator. Krohn will coordinate economic and life cycle analyses needed to assess the profit potential and environmental impact of the processes. Some of the experiments will take place at the Highlands EnviroFuels commercial-scale biorefinery in Lake Placid, Fla.