When University of Illinois crop scientist Fred Below began growing tropical maize, the form of corn grown in the tropics, he was looking for novel genes for the utilization of nitrogen fertilizer and was hoping to discover information that could be useful to American corn producers.
Now, however, it appears that maize itself may prove to be the ultimate U.S. biofuels crop.
Early research results show that tropical maize, when grown in the Midwest, requires few crop inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer, chiefly because it does not produce any ears. It also is easier for farmers to integrate into their current operations than some other dedicated energy crops because it can be easily rotated with corn or soybeans, and can be planted, cultivated and harvested with the same equipment U.S. farmers already have. Finally, tropical maize stalks are believed to require less processing than corn grain, corn stover, switchgrass, Miscanthus giganteus and the scores of other plants now being studied for biofuel production.
What it does produce, straight from the field with no processing, is 25 percent or more sugar -- mostly sucrose, fructose and glucose.
"Corn is a short-day plant, so when we grow tropical maize here in the Midwest the long summer days delay flowering, which causes the plant to grow very tall and produce few or no ears," says Below. Without ears, these plants concentrate sugars in their stalks, he adds. Those sugars could have a dramatic affect on Midwestern production of ethanol and other biofuels.
According to Below, "Midwestern-grown tropical maize easily grows 14 or 15 feet tall compared to the 7-1/2 feet height that is average for conventional hybrid corn. It is all in these tall stalks," Below explains. "In our early trials, we are finding that these plants build up to a level of 25 percent or higher of sugar in their stalks.
This differs from conventional corn and other crops being grown for
|Contact: Marilyn Upah Bant|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign