Purdue leading research using advanced technologies to better grow sorghum as biofuel

June 24, 2015  

Tuinstra sorghum

With a seed head of mature sorghum in his hands, Mitch Tuinstra stands in a field of young sorghum plants at Purdue's Agronomy Center for Research and Education (ACRE). Tuinstra is a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Purdue and the Wickersham Chair of Excellence in Agricultural Research. (Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University has been awarded $6.5 million by the U.S. Department of Energy for research aimed at producing superior strains of sorghum suitable for growing as a biofuel.

The grant is among six Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture awards nationwide from DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The projects are focused on accelerating energy crop development for the production of renewable transportation fuels.

A team of researchers from the Purdue colleges of Agriculture and Engineering and Purdue's Polytechnic Institute has partnered in the project with IBM Research, the largest industrial research organization in the world, and a scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia.

Purdue was competitive for the funding because of the investment in Purdue Moves, a range of initiatives, including plant sciences, that the university introduced in 2013 to broaden Purdue's global impact and enhance educational opportunities for its students.

"The award is further evidence of the potential our plant sciences initiative has as a leader in developing crops that enhance our nation's economic and environmental future," Purdue President Mitch Daniels said Wednesday (June 24).

The award also is the Plant Sciences Research and Education Pipeline initiative's first large, competitive grant, noted Karen Plaut, senior associate dean for research and faculty affairs.

"It shows how the strategic investment in plant sciences at a critical time allows our faculty and students to be at the forefront of research," Plaut said.

The project will benefit from investments in the plant sciences initiative, including:

* A recently installed fiber-optic cable data connection from the field to campus.

* Equipment such as the new Purdue Phenomobile and Purdue's Automated Field Phenotyping and Seed Processing Laboratory at the Agronomy Center for Research and Education.

* The Laboratory for Agriculture Sensing and Analytics Research, part of Purdue's Global Sustainability Institute at Discovery Park.

The project is designed to help scientists overcome limitations in collecting accurate, high-resolution data on energy crops such as sorghum to efficiently produce superior strains for cultivation. 

The team is developing an automated, high-throughput system of airborne and ground-based mobile phenotyping sensors to produce detailed and precise measurements of plant characteristics that measure growth, development and water tolerance. The data, coupled with advances in biotechnology, will be used for gene identification and breeding specifically for bioenergy traits suitable for use in transportation fuel. 

Leading the team is Mitch Tuinstra, professor of plant breeding and genetics in the Department of Agronomy and scientific director of the plant sciences initiative.

"Groundbreaking and multidisciplinary research coupled with cutting-edge technology will enable industry and academia to exploit the potential of new remote sensing technologies to enhance plants for biofuel production," Tuinstra said.

With Tuinstra on the Purdue team are Cliff Weil (agronomy), Melba Crawford (agronomy, electrical and computer engineering, civil engineering), Ed Delp and David Ebert (electrical and computer engineering), Ayman Habib (civil engineering), Keith Cherkauer (agricultural and biological engineering), Michael Leasure (aviation technology) and Larry Biehl (information technology). 

Writer: Keith Robinson, 765-494-2722, robins89@purdue.edu 

Sources: Mitch Daniels, president@purdue.edu

Karen Plaut, 765-494-8362, kplaut@purdue.edu

Mitch Tuinstra, 765-494-9093, dmitch@purdue.edu

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Keith Robinson, robins89@purdue.edu
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