As gasoline and diesel prices continue to hover around at near-record levels, and the United States' dependence on petroleum imports increases, the public is renewing interest in fossil fuel alternatives is being renewed.

The country's agriculture industry is one source of domestically-produced options to conventional energy. In fact, biomass — plants and plant-derived material — provides the only renewable alternative for liquid transportation fuel.

Ethanol, traditionally made from corn, is familiar as an alternative fuel and a pollution-reducing gas additive.

“One of the problems with ethanol from corn is that it takes a lot of energy to produce,” says Dr. Zeng-yu Wang of the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.

However, it is possible, however, for fuel ethanol to be made from plant fiber (cellulose and hemicellulose) biomass. Switchgrass, a fast-growing perennial warm-season native grass with a wide geographic distribution, is one of the most promising energy biomass sources because of its adaptability, hardiness, longevity and high biomass production.

Dr. Zeng-yu Wang, an associate scientist in Noble's Forage Improvement Division, of the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., recently received funds to investigate improving ethanol production from switchgrass. Wang's $670,000 grant was one of 11 awarded as part of the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy's joint 2005 Biomass Research and Development Initiative.

Wang says the process for making ethanol from switchgrass is essentially the same as the process one used when making it from with corn — the plant material is broken down into its component sugars, and then those sugars are fermented to produce ethanol.

“One of the problems with ethanol from corn is that it takes a lot of energy to produce,” says Wang, an associate scientist in the Noble Foundation's Forage Improvement Division. “The energy required to make corn ethanol is positive at about 1.34, but that is dwarfed by the possible five-fold energy balance — the amount of energy put into a process compared to how much energy is produced — for ethanol production from cellulose and hemicellulose.”

While switchgrass has abundant sugars in the form of cellulose and hemicellulose, extracting those sugarsthem is difficult because of a third plant fiber component, lignin.

“Lignin is like the cement between bricks in a wall,” Wang says., Lignin holdsing the cellulose and hemicellulose together and inhibitsing their breakdown into the sugars needed for ethanol production.

Wang's proposed method for improving switchgrass for ethanol production involves using genetic engineering to reduce lignin in the plants.

“We are going to down- regulate, or ‘knock out,’ genes responsible for making the enzymes that lead to lignin production,” Wang says. “We can't completely knock them out, though, because plants couldn't grow without some lignin. We want to reduce it to the point where it improves ethanol production potential without negatively affecting plant growth.”

One of the down-regulation methods Wang plans to use has been shown to significantly reduce lignin content significantly in another grass species, tall fescue. The second method he plans to try has been demonstrated to be effective in alfalfa.

Construction and screening of a switchgrass cDNA library — a large pool of genes from the species — is currently underway, and Wang anticipates initial genetic transformations of plants will be completed in December 2006. He says the transgenic switchgrass plants will be incorporated into Noble's breeding program by 2008.

“Fossil fuels sooner or later will deplete,” Wang says. “Therefore, renewable energy from plants will be necessary.”

A potential side benefit of Wang's lignin reduction work in switchgrass is that the same strategy can be applied to other species, particularly forage crops.

“Reduced lignin leads to improved digestibility of plants when they're being grazed by ruminant animals,” he adds.

In announcing the Biomass Research and Development Initiative grant recipients, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns says USDA and DOE's cooperative conservation partnership benefits the United States with enhanced energy security, a cleaner environment and revitalized rural economies.

“The selected projects support President Bush's goal to enhance renewable energy supplies,” Johanns says. “The grants will help to develop additional renewable energy resources and expand markets for agricultural products.”

The 10 other funded projects are:

University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho) — Increasing the Potential for the Utilization of Cellulose from Straw for Biofuel and Bioproduct Production; $693,285

The Tampa Bay Area Ethanol Consortium (Florida) — Implementation of a Scale-Up Pilot Plant Demonstration Facility toward the Commercialization of Florida Biomass Feedstocks for Ethanol Production; $1,920,000

University of Montana, College of Technology (Missoula, Mont.) — Biopower Demonstration and Educational Outreach; $990,500

North Carolina State University, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (Raleigh, N.C.) — Conversion of BioDiesel Derived Glycerol to Glycidol, Glycerol Carbonate and C-3 Oxygenates by Catalytic and Biocatalytic Pathways; $1,606, 265

Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa) — Environmental Enhancement through Corn Stover Utilization; $1,853,996

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.) — Carbon Fiber from Biomass Lignins; $1,083,770

Clarkson University (Potsdam, N.Y.) — Environmental and Economic Performance of an Integrated, Digester-Cogeneration-Value-Added Process; $805,938

University of Minnesota, Morris (Morris, Minn.) — Biomass Gasification: A Comprehensive Demonstration of a Community-Scale Biomass Energy System; $1,896,493

University of Florida (Gainesville, Fla.) — Bioenergy: Optimum Incentives and Sustainability of Non-Industrial Private Forests in the U.S. South; $656,525

Environmental Resources Trust (Washington, D.C.) — Incentives for Biomass Commercialization: Pioneering Markets for Biomass Using Renewable Energy Certificates, Emission Reduction Credits and Incentive Programs for Ammonia, PM10 and PM2.5 Reductions; $449,99.