When we hear the word “biofuels,” we usually think of subsidized corn- or sugar-based ethanol, and the dreaded “food vs. fuel” debate. But most of the crops grown in the United States for food, feed and fiber have carefully selected traits – such as a high ratio of seed to straw content – that makes them favorable when it comes to growing food, but not when it comes to biofuel production. Today’s big challenge in biofuels research is developing low-cost, high-quality biomass feedstocks that can be grown on marginal land, leaving the valuable farmland available for food crops.
Biofuels have been getting a lot of love from the feds recently. (And, again, here.) Last week, the U.S. Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA) also awarded 10 grants totaling $12.2 million to support biofuels and bioenergy research. The Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy competitive grants program, which has been in place since 2006, funds research to increase crop yield and quality, and improve crops’ adaptability in extreme environments. Specifically, funded projects focus on increasing yields of “lignocellulosic biomass materials” – the fibrous, woody and generally inedible portions of plant matter – of crops such as switchgrass, poplar, Miscanthus and Brachypodium (none of which, by the way, are food).
The broader goals of the project range from decreasing oil imports and increasing energy security, to creating new opportunities for American farmers. By funding research on breeding bioenergy crops to tolerate poor soils and drought conditions, the USDA and DOE hope that bioengineers can create varieties that will tolerate being grown on land unsuitable for food crops. Someday, if we can incentivize farmers to grow them, we won’t have to make the choice between food and fuel.
A full list of awardees can be found here.