|High-biomass sorghum under development. Source: Dr. Bill Rooney|
Ceres, Inc. and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) of The Texas A&M University System have entered into an exclusive, multi-year joint research and commercialization agreement for high biomass sorghum.
Sorghum is a genus comprising numerous grass species, some of which are used for grain, fodder and forage (grain sorghum) and some of which are used for syrup production (sweet sorghum). The high-biomass variants will be optimized to produce large amounts of cellulosic biomass in the form of stems, stalks and leaves.
As these [new cellulosic ethanol] technologies mature, farmers will transition from growing as much grain per acre to producing as much biomass as they can per acre, with as little energy and agronomic inputs as possible. This means new crops and specialized hybrids like these high-biomass sorghum types will be needed.—Peter Mascia, Ceres Vice President of Product Development
Today, sorghum-to-ethanol production uses the grain, like corn, but the plants themselves hold the greatest potential for biofuel production, says Mascia.
Sorghum plants tend to be water-efficient, drought- and heat-tolerant, and grow in warmer climates. The state of Texas is thus interested in exploring the potential use of sorghum as a potential biofuel feedstock. One of Texas A&M’s initiatives, led by Dr. Bill Rooney, is to develop a high-biomass sorghum with a yield of about 20 tons/acre.
Rooney’s first breeding lines—the precursors to hybrids—can approach 20 feet under favorable conditions, could produce more than 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre—more than four times the current starch-to-ethanol process.
To accelerate product development, Ceres and TAES will work together to expand their marker-assisted breeding efforts. Markers allow plant breeders to identify useful traits in seed tissue or when plants are still seedlings. Large numbers of markers provide a roadmap of the sorghum genome, cutting years off development timelines for new products, and making it easier to improve the makeup of the plants to facilitate processing.
When we combine their resources with our high-throughput trait development capabilities, we believe we can double the rate of improvement to biomass yields, while expanding the range of the crop for earlier planting in cooler and drier conditions, especially on so-called marginal or unproductive land.—Peter Mascia
As part of this agreement, Ceres will obtain exclusive commercialization rights to TAES’ high-biomass sorghum hybrids developed in the joint research program. The TAES program will receive royalties as well as financial and technology support from Ceres. Other aspects of the collaboration were not disclosed.
In May 2007, Chevron Corporation and the Texas A&M Agriculture and Engineering BioEnergy Alliance (Texas A&M BioEnergy Alliance) announced that they had entered into a strategic research agreement to accelerate the production and conversion of crops for manufacturing ethanol and other biofuels from cellulose. (Earlier post.)
Last week, Ceres announced it had raised $75 million through a private offering of convertible preferred stock. Ceres plans to use the proceeds for research and product development activities in several dedicated energy crops, which are bred to maximize yields of plant biomass. (Earlier post.)