As we continue our discussion on biomass production, Stephen Kresovich, Smart State Endowed Chair of Genomics in the Department of Biological Sciences at University of South Carolina explains some of the work he’s been doing to make production of biomass crops profitable:
“I’m interested in the genetics of converting energy from sunlight to usable forms.”
Kresovich explains what he’s looking for when working with potential biomass crops:
“There is a group of energy grasses that evolved together in tropical or sub-tropical environments that are highly productive converters of solar energy to carbon, fixing carbon as sugar or cellulose. They are relatively water use efficient and there are different forms so they can be propagated as annuals by seed or perennials by regrowth and cuttings.”
Kresovich goes on to describe what types of biomass materials are viable energy crops, particularly in southeastern environments:
“Examples would be sugar cane and wild relatives of sugar cane. That can involve things like miscanthus or other wild relatives that actually have a good amount of cold tolerance and can be found in the foothills of the Himalayas. That is one grouping. Another grouping is things like switch grass, sorghums and the various forms of sorghum like grain or sweet or bio mass types. There are a number of grasses that are called C-4 grasses, where C-4 represents the carbon that is the first product of fixation from aerial carbon dioxide. They are highly productive and ready to be exploited. There is a lot of diversity in the material and if we can focus on what the end products are going to be we can work with people to tailor the crop to the end product use.”
For a long time it’s been the belief that the southeast is a prime location for the growth of biomass crops, but it’s a chicken-and-egg debate, without a market, farmer’s won’t grow them:
“That has been a real irony. I think the southeast has been a perfect place for growing these types of crops. We have abundant sunlight and moisture. There is land that is available and one of the exciting things about the biology is really trying to link the research to solving problems and economic development in depressed rural areas. So the idea that we could develop an agricultural system that could be useful for producing regional energy is really exciting. I think we have great strength in front end of the system with agricultural systems, the agronomists, the plant breeders, entomologists and plant pathologists, what we need is greater engagement with both the public and private sector to have chemical engineers and systems people to help us optimize the system.”
Regarding using spray fields as biomass production areas, Kresovich is all for the practice:
“In think in NC that is clearly a win-win situation where you minimize the challenges of pollutants and you use the material to more effectively and renewably produce energy crops or food crops or feed crops.”
And Kresovich feels that the future is bright for the mid-Atlantic down to the Gulf of Mexico as a biomass production area:
“I think there is tremendous potential in the mid-Atlantic from Virginia down through Florida. I believe in the 21st century that this energy belt is going to be recognized and we are going to find ways to use agricultural products for renewable energy and chemical feed stocks.”
University of South Carolina Genomics Researcher, Stephen Kresovich.
For more on energy grasses in our Alternative Crop series click here.