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Posts tagged: DOE

USDA Officials in the Midwest Look at Novel Ways to Create New Energy from Waste Material

An ethanol plant in Bairstown, Iowa, may soon begin producing fuel from waste materials.

An ethanol plant in Bairstown, Iowa, may soon begin producing fuel from waste materials.

After visiting a cutting-edge biofuels facility in rural Iowa recently, a group of USDA Rural Development state directors are thinking about the tremendous global implications of that plant. Read more »

USDA, Partners, Leading the Way to a Clean Energy Economy

There is an excitement at USDA with respect to bioenergy and biofuels and much is going on – a BIOFRENZY if you will – not in a sense of chaos – but rather many challenges and much to do.  The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will be implemented July 1, 2010. The RFS2 calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be used in the US transportation fuel supply by 2022 – and the majority of this total must be advanced biofuels. Read more »

Feeling Stressed? So are Poplars

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.  

By Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Technological University

People aren’t the only living things that suffer from stress. Trees must deal with stress too. It can come from a lack of water or too much water, from scarcity of a needed nutrient, from pollution or a changing climate. Helping trees and crops adapt to stress quickly and efficiently is a pressing goal of plant biologists worldwide.

A team led by Michigan Technological University  scientists and supported by USDA and DOE grants has identified the molecular mechanism that Populus—the scientific name for common poplars, cottonwoods and aspens—uses to adapt to changing soil conditions, as well as some of the genes that turn the process off or on. They hope to apply what they’ve learned to find ways to use biotechnology or selective breeding to modify the trees to make them more stress-tolerant.  And better sources of pulp and fiber.

“Our hope is that by understanding how this works, we can manipulate the system so the plants can adapt faster and better to stressful conditions,” explained Michigan Technological University’s Victor Busov, senior author on a paper about this work published in the journal The Plant Cell.  

Busov and colleagues at Michigan Tech, the University of Georgia, Oregon State University and the Beijing Forestry University in China analyzed thousands of genes in the Populus genome, the only tree genome that has been completely sequenced. They were searching for the mechanism that regulates the plant’s decision to grow tall or to spread its roots out in an extensive underground exploration system that can sample the soil near and far until it finds what the rest of the plant needs.

The key players turned out to be a family of hormones called gibberellins, referred to by the scientists as GAs.   “GAs’ role in root development is poorly understood,” said Busov, “and the role of GAs in lateral root formation is almost completely unknown.”  Lateral roots are the tangle of tiny roots that branch out from the primary root of a plant. ”They are the sponges,” Busov explained, “the ones that go looking for nutrients, for water—the ones that do most of the work.” 

The researchers hope to understand how to turn off production of GAs, which would stimulate more roots and fewer leaves and twigs — and thus help poplars cope with drought conditions, a valuable trait in a world where water scarcity is increasingly a problem. 

Poplar fruiting as part of the USDA poplar breeding program

Poplar fruiting as part of the USDA poplar breeding program.

 

Poplars. Photo credit Michigan Technological University  

Poplars. Photo credit Michigan Technological University. 

Biofuels Testimony

I had a chance this morning to testify before the House Agriculture Committee about USDA’s commitment to energy security for America.  I shared the spotlight for this hearing with Under Secretary Tonsager, and together we impressed on our colleagues on the Hill the great challenges we have before us in developing a new biofuels industry, and expertise and knowledge of the many people here at USDA working on this critical issue.

Congress has laid out a significant challenge to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 to power our cars, trucks, jets, ships and tractors. This is a substantial goal, but one that the United States, with the help of American agriculture, can meet or beat. However, I believe to achieve this goal we will need to expand our focus on drop-in or third generation fuels. These are biofuels that can directly substitute for gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel.

Today more than 9 billion gallons of biofuels are produced annually by first-generation biofuel technologies that turn corn grain starch into ethanol, an increase from 1% of the U.S. fuel supply in 2000 to 7% in 2008.

However, Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) stipulated that only 15 billion gallons of the 36 billion can be provided by ethanol produced from grain, or what is called first-generation biofuel. This means that 21 billion gallons of biofuels will need to come from sources other than corn grain. Second-generation biofuel technologies that turn crop residue such as corn stover or dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass into ethanol, and third-generation biofuel technologies that turn these feedstocks into advanced biofuels – synthetic substitutes for gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel – will have to come rapidly into commercial use.

If we are to reach our target of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, we will need to change the way we do business. The U.S. has funded thousands of worthy projects, but there has been little effective integration of these efforts across government agencies, and also there has not been a focus on partnering with public and private resources to rapidly develop biofuel supply chains capable for achieving our nation’s biofuels goals.  Significant parts of the supply chain have been ignored or have received too little attention such as sustainable feedstock production systems, solutions to lower the cost of biomass transport, and efforts to leverage America’s existing fuel distribution and utilization systems.

Switchgrass and Genetecist Ken VogelFor example, the amounts of biomass and other dedicated energy crops that are needed to produce second- and third-generation biofuels basically requires creation of an entirely new agricultural commodity sector. There are many economic and environmental uncertainties to be expected as this sector emerges.   We intend to focus on feedstock development for a range of second- and third-generation bioenergy crops.  We will continue to work in corn – where our Agricultural Research Service scientists have made important recent discoveries in genomics.  And we will build a robust research portfolio in perennial grasses (like switchgrass and miscanthus), energy cane, sorghum, and other potential dedicated feedstocks.  To ensure continued genetic improvement of bioenergy crops, NIFA and DOE Office of Science have partnered to fund six projects totaling $6.3 million for fundamental science to accelerate plant breeding programs by characterizing the genes, proteins, and molecular interactions that influence biomass production.

Under Secretary Tonsager and his team have taken a leadership role in helping to ensure that people throughout rural America can contribute to building this new capability to produce and deliver biofuels to the market.  Without their work in commercializing biofuels and developing markets to realize rural wealth, our research on biofeedstock development and cultivation won’t ensure the energy security biofuels can bring.  Promising developments in the laboratory or inventions by a farmer or an aspiring entrepreneur will simply never see the light of day. Innovation and our ability to meet the food, fuel and fiber needs of the country will come from all sorts of places and we need to incubate those technology breakthroughs as well.

We need this now more than ever, so that we can unleash the creativity and skills of people in government, in college laboratories, in the garages of aspiring entrepreneurs, and in the R&D facilities of the private sector.

– Raj Shah, Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics