A researcher at the University of Rhode Island is working to develop genetically modified switchgrass with a variety of traits that could double the biomass yield per acre and reduce the cost of cellulosic ethanol production to as low as $1 per gallon from approximately $2.70 per gallon now.
Albert Kausch has launched Project Golden Switchgrass at the University of Rhode Island, which he hopes will develop “the variety of enhanced switchgrass that everyone needs.”
Switchgrass is a native plant of the tall grass prairies. It grows 12 feet tall in one season and produces 10 tons of plant material an acre, more biomass per year than most other plants. I’m confident my lab can make it produce 20 tons an acre using the tools and personnel we have right now.
There are several impediments to the process of converting switchgrass to ethanol that would make unaltered switchgrass commercially unprofitable. We are working with professors at Brown University, for instance, to create better enzymes that will degrade cellulose into sugars for a more efficient conversion to ethanol.—Albert Kausch
Kausch is now genetically engineering switchgrass that is both sterile and resistant to herbicides, and he has a long list of other traits he hopes to improve as well, including drought tolerance, salt tolerance and cold tolerance. He expects to have test plots of the genetically modified plants on the URI campus within two years, and he hopes the first varieties will be in commercial production by 2011.
Sterility for gene confinement is an important consideration for the project. Kausch is working to create a switchgrass that does not flower or reproduce, thereby ensuring that the genetically modified organisms do not escape into the environment and affect wild switchgrass.
That’s a key concern with using corn for ethanol because some of the genes being engineered into corn to make it a better source of ethanol aren’t genes we want in the food chain. And without confinement, such as plant sterility, those genes could find their way into the corn that we eat.—Albert Kausch
In addition, sterile plants that do not use their energy to produce flowers can use it to produce more biomass as leaves and plant material instead that in turn will produce more ethanol.