Energy crop company Ceres Inc. and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station of the Texas A&M University System announced today that they have entered into an exclusive, multi-year joint research and commercialization agreement for high biomass sorghum. These plants are not designed to produce grain, but rather vast amounts of biomass — the raw material for a new generation of biofuels made from stems, stalks and leaves.

Today, sorghum-to-ethanol production uses the grain, like corn, but the plants themselves hold the greatest potential for biofuel production, says Peter Mascia, Ceres vice president of product development. He notes that new technologies are making it possible to utilize the carbohydrates that comprise plant cell walls, called cellulose.

“As these 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 input as possible. This means new crops and specialized hybrids like these high-biomass sorghum types will be needed,” Mascia said.

Plant scientist Dr. Bill Rooney of the A&M System's Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) says that sorghum is a near-ideal crop for cellulosic biofuels. “Sorghum produces high yields, is naturally drought-tolerant and can thrive in places that do not support corn and other food crops. Sorghum also fits into established production systems and is harvested the year it is planted, unlike perennial grasses, so it fits well in a crop mix with perennial species and existing crops, like cotton,” said Rooney.

A pioneer in developing high-biomass sorghum, Rooney's first breeding lines — the precursors to hybrids — can approach 20 feet under favorable conditions, he says, and 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. “Markers and biotechnology will be crucial for developing sorghum for cellulosic biofuels,” says Rooney.

Mascia said Ceres has Texas-sized expectations for the collaboration. “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,” said Mascia. He expects that commercial quantities of the initial hybrids will be available in time to meet the requirements of the first cellulosic biorefineries currently being planned.

As part of this agreement, Ceres will obtain exclusive commercialization rights to TAES's 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.

“This agreement between Ceres and TAES is a great model of how research institutions and the private sector can collaborate to accelerate existing research programs to solve our country's future energy needs, said Dr. Mark Hussey, director of TAES. “Having our scientists work jointly on future bioenergy research is a win-win situation for both TAES and Ceres, and will help meet the growing demand for biofuels through the development of cellulosic feedstocks.”