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Illinois Researchers Identify Promising New Biofuel

Biofuel production has ratcheted up to become a major part of America’s energy and agricultural industries. Corn, or maize, is by far the most widely grown crop to be converted into ethanol. However, the dominance of maize in the biofuel industry is not without its pitfalls. Now, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have identified a temperate- tropical maize hybrid that can potentially revolutionize biofuels in this country. The maize hybrid has the potential to increase ethanol production for each unit of plant material, and minimize the environmental cost of biofuel production.

“Our maize hybrid,” said Dr. Frederick Below, Professor of Crop Physiology at the University of Illinois, “when grown using the same amount of fertilizer as commercial grain hybrids, produced 15-20% more biomass than the commercial hybrids.”

The scientists working on the project chose different strains of maize from both temperate and tropical regions. The different genetic combinations create incorporate the best characteristics of both strains.

For example, the tropical maize parent plant is accustomed to much longer growing seasons, and thus will grow longer in the temperate Midwest climate. The temperate maize parent plant minimizes the negative traits of the tropical plant by reducing diseases and pest vulnerability. It boosts the positive traits of the tropical plant by increasing drought tolerance.

Together, they form a kind of “super corn”, a plant that grows larger and for a longer period. Most importantly, it produces more stalk sugars, which increase ethanol output.

The maize hybrid produces equal or more ethanol per acre as conventional maize. However, they require less input from fertilizers. Plus, ethanol can be produces from the vegetative material and not just the sweet kernels.

The ultimate goal is to increase the sustainability of biofuel production from America’s largest crop. The hybrid maize will not solve all the environmental and economic issues with biofuels, but will help minimize them.

Research in corn has been ongoing for many years and there is a wealth of information at present. Future research will be able to build on University of Illinois’ maize hybrid.

The study has been published in the journal, GCB Bioenergy.

Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.