University of Illinois officials held ceremonial shovels Wednesday morning, for a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction on a new greenhouse. It will open next summer in the Urbana-Champaign campus’ Research Park and be used for research into bioenergy crops.
From the outside, the new greenhouse on South Fourth Street in Champaign will look like the existing greenhouse located next to it. But inside, the new facility will house a high-throughput plant phenotyping facility designed to monitor the growth of grasses that could be developed into biofuels.
U of I researcher, Dr. Andrew Leakey says the grasses they plan to study include miscanthus , and specialized strains of sugarcane and sorghum, known as energy-cane and bioenergy sorghum.
Leakey describes the greenhouse as their maternity ward, where they hope to breed the varieties that can be used to make biofuels with the least amount of energy inputs, and the smallest release of carbon into the atmosphere.
“And when they show early signs of success here, then they get multiplied and taken out to field trials, either here, or at our network of field sites across the country,” said Leakey.
Leakey says that unlike the use of petroleum, which takes carbon out of the ground and releases it into the atmosphere, grasses like miscanthus also take CO2 out of the atmosphere.
“This is the plant actually pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis, making it into complex carbon compounds,” said Leakey. “Some of those compounds we use for fuel, but some of those compounds end up being stored in the soil in the long term. And so we can create a bank of carbon in the soil where we’re effectively removing it from the atmosphere.”
Leakey says he’s especially interested in developing biofuels that can be used in aviation.
“Many of us are driving electric cars these days,” said Leakey. “But aviation is one mode of transport that’s particularly difficult to electrify. That’s why we want to produce sustainable aviation fuels from these crops grown in Illinois.”
The new greenhouse will support research at the federally-funded Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation — CABBI for short. Leakey directs CABBI, which is operated at the U of I in partnership with 20 other institutions around the country. CABBI is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Genomic Science Program.