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Biodiesel from sugarcane more economical than soybean

Published March 17, 2016
Oil cane field
Oil cane field
  • Today most U.S. biodiesel is produced from soybean. But despite its value as a protein source, soybean only provides the equivalent of about one barrel of oil per acre.
  • A team led by the University of Illinois has engineered sugarcane plants to produce 12 percent oil by weight, and expect to reach 20 percent in the future. This could provide 17 barrels of oil per acre.
  • Biodiesel from “oil cane” could reduce the cost of biodiesel production from $4.10 to $2.20 per gallon and provide additional environmental and economic benefits.

URBANA, Ill. – America’s oil consumption far exceeds that of every other country in the world. What’s more, it’s unsustainable. Therefore, in 2007, Congress mandated a move away from petroleum-based oils toward more renewable sources. Soybeans, an important dietary protein and the current primary source of plant-based oils used for biodiesel production, only yield about one barrel per acre. At this rate, the soybean crop could never quench the nation’s thirst for oil.

To address this issue, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program called for high-risk, high-reward projects that could develop new drop-in fuels in its PETRO program. A team led by University of Illinois researchers answered the call by imagining and successfully achieving a way to produce large quantities of oil from sugarcane. Their most recent study demonstrates the economic benefits of this technology relative to soybean oil.

“We thought that if we could go back to the drawing board, we’d need a very productive crop. And we would also need something that could grow on land that isn’t being used intensively for food. We came up with sugarcane and sweet sorghum,” recalls Stephen P. Long, U of I crop scientist and lead investigator on the project.

The team altered sugarcane metabolism to convert sugars into lipids, or oils, which could be used to produce biodiesel. The natural makeup of sugarcane is typically only about 0.05 percent oil. Within a year of starting the project, the team was able to boost oil production 20 times, to approximately 1 percent. At the time of this writing, the so-called “oil-cane” plants are producing 12 percent oil. The ultimate goal is to achieve 20 percent. Oil cane has additional advantages that have been engineered by the team. These include increased cold tolerance and more efficient photosynthesis, which leads to greater biomass production and even more oil.

“If all of the energy that goes into producing sugar instead goes into oil, then you could get 17 to 20 barrels of oil per acre,” Long explains. “A crop like this could be producing biodiesel at a very competitive price, and could represent a perpetual source of oil and a very significant offset to greenhouse gas emissions, as well.”    

In their analysis, the team looked at the land area, technology, and costs required for processing oil-cane biomass into biodiesel under a variety of oil production scenarios, from 2 percent oil in the plant to 20 percent. These numbers were compared with normal sugarcane, which can be used to produce ethanol, and soybean.

An advantage of oil cane is that leftover sugars in the plant can be converted to ethanol, providing two fuel sources in one.

“Modern sugarcane mills in Brazil shared with us all of their information on energy inputs, costs, and machinery. Then we looked at the U.S. corn ethanol industry, and how they separated the corn oil. Everything we used is existing technology, so that gave us a lot of security on our estimates,” Long says.

The analysis showed that oil cane with 20 percent oil in the stem, grown on under-utilized acres in the southeastern United States, could replace more than two-thirds of the country’s use of diesel and jet fuel. This represents a much greater proportion than could be supplied by soybean, even if the entire crop went to biodiesel production. Furthermore, oil cane could achieve this level of productivity on a fraction of the land area that would be needed for crops like soybean and canola, and it could do so on land considered unusable for food crop production.

The current full production cost of biodiesel from soybean is $4.10 per gallon ($1.08 per liter). Using oil cane instead, that cost decreases to $3.30 per gallon for 2 percent oil cane and to $2.20 per gallon for 20 percent oil cane. The ethanol produced from 1-, 5- and 10 percent oil cane would add to the cost benefit.

Although $2.20 per gallon does not represent a large savings over the current price of gasoline in the United States, Long cautions consumers and politicians to look at the bigger picture.

“We know from our past experience that it’s not going to last,” he says. “We need to start building for a future when gas is no longer as low as $1.50 per gallon, and we need to avoid any future dependency on other countries for our oil. We are lucky to have the land resources to do this and, in doing so, to ensure that future generations have a supply of oil that is domestic and renewable.”

The article, “Techno-economic analysis of biodiesel and ethanol co-production from lipid-producing sugarcane,” appears in Biofpr. Lead author Haibo Huang, formerly of the U of I, is now a professor at Virginia Tech. Stephen Long and co-author Vijay Singh are faculty members in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the U of I. The project received funding from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program.

The full text of the article is found at

ACES alumni opportunity to bring youth to “college”

Published March 15, 2016
ACES Family Academies participants

URBANA, Ill. – University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) alumni are encouraged to register to attend ACES Family Academies with their young Illini fans ages 8 to 13. The one-and-a-half-day event will take place July 7-8.

ACES Family Academies allows ACES alumni to share their Illinois experience with their child, grandchild, or friend. This educational experience allows youth to explore the ACES campus, attend classes showcasing the variety of career paths available through ACES, and ultimately enjoy time with their family member learning more about the world around them.

“I would recommend this program to all ACES graduates because of the opportunity to return to campus and act like a student again while participating in exciting new learning experiences along with your grandchildren or children,” says Randy Sims, a 1969 agricultural economics alum. “ACES Family Academies is well organized and the participants really feel welcomed. My grandson and I had a ball.”

Some of the classes that will be offered are: Paper Airplanes and Drones in Agriculture; Food Challenge; Man’s Best Friend; Wonderful World of Agribusiness; and Global Crop Failure Crisis! How Can You Be a Part of the Solution?

“The classes are both fun and educational. What a fantastic introduction to encourage college life in my grandson’s future and to help alums like myself to reconnect with the University of Illinois campus,” says Jerry Benjamin, a 1965 agricultural economics alum.

To register for this year’s ACES Family Academies, visit Registration is open until May 15 for ACES alumni. Space is limited. Registration will open if space allows for non-alumni from May 15 to June 1.

For more information, visit or contact the ACES Alumni Association at 217-333-7744.


News Source:

Tina Veal, 217-333-7744

Sweet corn genes related to crowding stress identified

Published March 15, 2016
Corn field
Researchers identify gene clusters that relate to crowding tolerance in sweet corn
  • Sweet corn hybrids vary in their tolerance to crowding stress.
  • New research identifies genes related to crowding stress tolerance and yield in sweet corn.
  • Identifying genes related to yield in crowding-tolerant sweet corn is the first step in breeding new lines that could maximize yield under even greater stress.

URBANA, Ill. – Plants grown in high-density or crowded populations often put more energy into growth and maintenance than reproduction. For example, flowering may be delayed as plants allocate resources to growing taller and escape competition for light. This sensitivity to crowding stress has been observed in some varieties of sweet corn, but other varieties show higher tolerance, producing high yields even in crowded conditions. A recent University of Illinois and USDA Agricultural Research Service study attempted to uncover the genetic mechanisms of crowding tolerance in sweet corn.

“We were trying to find genes that differentiate sweet corn hybrids that have potential to produce higher yields under crowding stress versus hybrids with lower yields under the same growing conditions,” explains U of I crop science researcher Eunsoo Choe.

Choe and her team measured observable or phenotypic traits for high- and low-yielding hybrids under crowding stress; these included traits known to correlate with crowding stress, such as plant height, leaf area, and time to maturity. Other traits, such as yield, kernel mass, kernel moisture, and fill percentage were also measured. Lastly, the team extracted genetic material from the plants to explore correlations between gene expression patterns and measured traits.

“We found clusters of genes that were related to yield under crowding stress,” says Choe.

Although gene expression patterns indicated each hybrid utilized unique mechanisms for tolerating crowding stress, the researchers did confirm a common genetic basis for the yield response in the six hybrids tested. Low-yielding hybrids had gene activities related to various stress responses while high-yielding hybrids utilized gene activities more directly related to carbohydrate accumulation.

Choe says that genes involved with cell growth were prevalent in low-yielding hybrids; these genes may be responsible for delayed flowering under crowding stress. Conversely, genes associated with carbohydrate metabolism were prevalent in high-yielding hybrids; these genes may relate to maintaining yield under crowding stress.

“The gene clusters we identified were very broad in their biological functions,” notes Choe. “Our results will have to be tested further for agronomic improvement by breeders. But narrowing down the pool of genes to those most likely influencing yield is an important step.”

The article, “Identification of crowding stress tolerance co-expression networks involved in sweet corn yield,” is published in PLoS ONE. Martin Williams, an ecologist at USDA ARS and the University of Illinois, and Jenny Drnevich, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Illinois, also contributed to the paper.

The full text of the article is available at

News Source:

Eunsoo Choe, 217-721-0774

Surprising strength in soybean prices

Published March 14, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The U.S and world soybean situation continues to be one of surplus. The USDA’s March 9 World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report projected 2015-16 marketing-year-ending stocks of U.S. soybeans at 460 million bushels, 10 million bushels above the February projection. The projection of world ending stocks, with stocks for Argentina and Brazil adjusted to an October-September marketing year, was lowered by 57 million bushels. According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, those stocks are still expected to be record large.

“At the projected level, U.S. stocks would represent 12.5 percent of projected use for the year,” Good said. “Stocks as a percent of use have been larger on numerous occasions, with a high of 28.5 percent for the 1985-86 marketing year. However, stocks at the level projected for this year are considered surplus in light of the record-large South American crop being harvested.”

Soybean prices declined from the summer high as the large U.S. crop unfolded.  May 2016 futures have traded in a post-harvest range of $8.535 to $9.175. The price of that contract was near contract lows on March 2, but moved about 40 cents higher by mid-March.

“The modest price strength was somewhat of a surprise, coming in the face of a slowdown in the pace of the domestic crush and the impending large South American harvest,” Good said.

Good added that the price strength may be attributed to a number of factors.

“The USDA did not increase the forecast size of the South American crop on March 9 as many had expected. The recent strength in the value of the Brazilian currency may also make U.S soybeans a little more competitive in the world market. If that strength persists, there will also be less incentive to expand soybean acreage in Brazil in the coming year.  In addition, the more widespread discussion of the elevated yield risk for the 2016 soybean crop may be reflected in the recent price strength,” he said.  

An additional factor that may be somewhat supportive to soybean prices is the current pace of U.S. soybean exports, Good said. “The USDA projects 2015-16 marketing-year exports at 1.69 billion bushels, unchanged from the February projection and 153 million bushels less than the record exports of last year. The export projection was not increased in the March 9 WASDE report even with a 55-million-bushel increase in the projection of imports by China during the current year. That increase is partially offset by smaller import projections for Mexico (7 million bushels) and the European Union (18 million bushels). The projection of Brazilian exports was also increased by 37 million bushels.”

With about 25 weeks left in the marketing year, the USDA reports that cumulative marketing-year export inspections for U.S soybeans have reached 1.48 billion bushels, 105 million bushels less than cumulative inspections of a year ago. However, cumulative Census Bureau export estimates (which are the estimates eventually reflected in the USDA soybean balance sheet) through the first five months of the current marketing year exceeded inspections by 32 million bushels.

“A year ago, cumulative Census export estimates through February were only 6 million bushels larger than cumulative inspections,” Good said. “If the 32-million-bushel margin through January has persisted, cumulative exports have now reached 1.512 billion bushels, only 79 million bushels less than the total of a year ago. To reach the USDA projection of 1.69 billion bushels for the year, exports during the remainder of the marketing year need to total only 178 million bushels. That is about 74 million bushels less than exports during the same period last year. Weekly shipments, then, need to average only about 7.2 million bushels per week to reach the projected total for the year, compared to the average of 10.3 million bushels in the same period last year. Weekly inspections have exceeded those of a year ago in each of the past five weeks.”

As of March 3, the USDA reported that 138 million bushels of U.S. soybeans had been sold for export, but not yet shipped. According to Good, to reach 1.69 billion bushels, new sales need to average 5.34 billion bushels per week for the remainder of the marketing year. Since some sales are typically carried forward to the next marketing year, sales likely need to average about 6.7 million bushels per week for cumulative sales to result in exports of 1.69 billion bushels. The pace of sales will continue to slow in a seasonal fashion as the world turns to South American supplies, but new sales averaged 14.5 million bushels per week for the four weeks that ended March 3.

“Although 2015-16 marketing-year U.S. soybean exports may marginally exceed the current USDA projection, year-ending stocks of soybeans will still be quite large,” Good said. “The USDA’s March 1 Grain Stocks report should confirm mid-year soybean stocks that were well above those of a year ago. For soybean prices to continue to move higher, expectations of a stronger demand environment will have to emerge or conditions will have to begin to point to a much smaller U.S. soybean crop in 2016. Expectations for the size of that crop will begin to unfold with the USDA’s Prospective Plantings report to be released on March 31.”  

Decide now on summer lawn care

Published March 10, 2016
Lawn mower

URBANA, Ill. – Summer lawn care decisions should be made in early spring, according to a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“By planning ahead, managing the lawn becomes easier,” explains Richard Hentschel.  “Decisions on lawn feeding and watering schedules will influence your lawn maintenance for the remainder of the season.”

For example, feeding the lawn and watering will change how often the lawn will need to be mowed. Watering can be helpful if feeding the lawn with organic fertilizers, but it is not required. If the lawn is only fertilized once in the season, it is best to apply the fertilizer in fall, when rain and cooler temperatures return.

“Lawns that receive limited or no feeding will not need to be watered to take advantage of those feedings,” Hentschel says.

If the decision is made to keep the lawn green throughout the summer, there is a commitment to water the lawn beginning as the spring rains slow in order to keep the lawn growing through the hot summer months.

“The lawn will also need to be fed, so the decision of watering and feeding go together,” Hentschel says.

Whether or not it is fed and watered, the lawn will need to be mowed more often during periods of vigorous active growth. Mower clippings should be left in place to recycle nutrients back into the lawn.

Many homeowners wonder how high to set the mower blade. Research indicates that the taller the grass blade, the deeper the roots. Deeper roots allow the lawn to resist drought damage and stay greener longer into the summer. This is partly because the taller blade will shade the soil from the sun, keeping the soil cooler and conserving soil moisture.

“Setting the mower deck up just one notch can make a big difference,” Hentschel says. “There are only a couple of times a year that the lawn should be cut slightly shorter: in the spring to clean up the lawn from the winter, and when you are going to top-dress the lawn with black dirt or organic matter while it is actively growing.”

Hentschel concludes by sharing his mowing mantra: “Mow high, mow often, with a sharp mower blade.”

For more information on home lawn care, visit U of I Extension’s LAWNTalk website, at

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension