Thanks to sunny skies and long growing seasons, farms and forests in the Southeastern United States will play a major role in efforts to produce biomass for biofuels that reduce our nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

And Agricultural Research Service scientists are focused on finding ways to tap into the region's potential.

Government mandates call for producing up to 36 billion gallons of biofuel to help meet the nation's transportation needs by 2022. While 15 billion gallons of that is expected to come from grain ethanol, the remaining 21 billion gallons will be derived from other feedstocks, such as sugarcane; perennial grasses, like switchgrass; and oilseed crops, such as rapeseed, pennycress, camelina, and soybeans.

To achieve that goal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has forged a number of strategic partnerships through its five USDA Regional Biomass Research Centers to coordinate research and tap into its nationwide resources and expertise. The centers are networks of scientists and facilities from two USDA agencies — ARS and the Forest Service Research and Development — in five regions across the United States: Central-East, Southeastern, Northern-East, Western, and Northwestern.

Of the five regions, the Southeast has the greatest natural capacity in the continental United States, with sufficient sunshine, soils, water, and other natural resources to produce more than 10 billion gallons of advanced biofuels each year, nearly a third of the 36 billion-gallon production target.

The goal for researchers is to develop high-yield bioenergy crops and production methods that minimize use of water and fertilizers and are compatible with current land uses. The systems have to be cost-effective for both growers and biofuel producers.

Researchers also want to enhance environmental quality by increasing carbon sequestration and reduce the amount of nitrogen runoff to waterways.

"We need to understand all of the implications of helping this country meet its future energy needs by producing plants that will be viable sources of fuel. That means examining a number of issues, such as whether these crops can be produced on less productive lands in ways that preserve environmental quality," says William Anderson, an ARS geneticist in Tifton, Georgia, and co-coordinator of the Southeastern Regional Biomass Center.

ARS researchers working in Georgia, Louisiana, Nebraska, Hawaii, and elsewhere, with expertise in a wide range of scientific fields, are working toward developing a range of biomass crops for biofuels. They are finding that each crop offers a different set of challenges — and possible rewards.

Work by Anderson and others, for instance, shows that napiergrass (Pennisetum purpureum) and varieties of sugarcane known as "energy cane" (Saccharum sp.) may work best in southern portions of Georgia and the rest of the region's southern tier.

By comparison, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), a biomass crop being developed in the Midwest, is more cold tolerant than subtropical grasses and works better than energy cane in more northern areas of the Southeast.

Much of the USDA research effort in the South is focused on energy cane, napiergrass, and sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor).

With its expertise, extensive network of university and industry partners, and vast collections of plant material available for research, ARS is uniquely equipped to play a pivotal role in developing all three of these grasses into viable feedstocks for biofuels.

ARS researchers are also working closely with companies that will produce biofuels so they understand the companies' priorities and are using that insight in their efforts. It's an approach that is helping to accelerate progress toward lowering the potential costs of producing biofuels and making the biofuels price competitive with that of petroleum fuels.