Scientists at the University of Texas will study how switchgrass can become a sustainable source of biofuel in the conditions of global climate change as part of two research projects supported by USD 15 million (EUR 13m) of grants.
Switchgrass is a common plant found in the tallgrass prairies across North America and can thrive in soils not suitable for other crops, the university explains in an announcement on Tuesday.
On the larger of the two projects, researchers will study how genes and a range of environmental factors affect the plant and will seek to find ways to improve it as an energy source, including even through genetic manipulation. The work will involve growing switchgrass plants in 14 test sites ranging north to south across the continent. The announcement notes that switchgrass has adapted to a wide variety of environments throughout North America and understanding how it has done so will provide insights into not only how it would perform as a biofuel crop in a given area now, but also in future climates.
This project is backed by a five-year grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research, which will provide USD 11 million for the university and USD 4 million for partner institutions.
The research will be led by Tom Juenger, a professor of integrative biology, who has also secured a USD-4-million four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a multipart project to study both switchgrass and a close cousin called panicgrass. Among other things, this grant will allow the researchers to continue their work on exploring the response of switchgrass to varying levels of drought.