Developing Tropical Maize as a New Biofuel and Forage Crop for Illinois


University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences Plant Physiology Laboratory
Dr. Fred Below, Principle Investigator, Wendy White and Mike Vincent, Graduate Students/Research Assistants

Need for Research

Tropical maize is a high energy crop with potentially valuable uses as both a biofuel and forage, and can be rapidly deployed throughout the state with low risk to the producer and minimal agricultural practice changes. These factors ensure this new flexible crop will have a large and positive impact on the biofuel and animal feed industries as well as the rural communities they serve.

We will form a team and develop a proposal that will include:

  • Assessment of the interaction of genetic and cultural management practices to optimize the targeted use of the crop.
  • Production trials collaborating with local farmers to determine agroecological adaptability, acceptance and economic potential.
  • Research and demonstration of the yield potential and nutritional quality of tropical maize as a silage crop.
  • Biological and genetic research and development of tropical maize hybrids and recombinant inbreds to maximize carbon yield potential and adaption in Illinois.
  • Biochemical and thermochemical evaluation of tropical maize biomass.
  • Analysis of economic impact to the local economy and to rural development.
  • Determination of USDA Farm Program incentives and barriers.
  • Public outreach through Ag in the Classroom, Field Days, and other University of Illinois Extension programs.
  • Processing trials partnering with the biofuel industry to optimize the parameters needed for commercial scale-up of biofuel production using tropical maize.

Phase 1 (2009) – Development of an Interdisciplinary Team and Proposal Development

The project team will consist of experts from multiple disciplines.  The areas of expertise required for this project include plant physiology and genetics, biochemical, mechanical and thermochemical engineering, economics and policy, agricultural education and outreach, and animal science/nutrition.

We will conduct a series of meetings that will initially define roles, responsibilities and resources required to achieve project goals as listed above, and then to delegate and implement activities to move the proposal from concept to completion.  We expect at least one meeting to consist of a site visit to the Dudley Smith Farm. We will conduct the meetings throughout May, June and July of this year.

As a part of the proposal development process, we will make tropical maize available to team members by growing and maintaining a crop at the Dudley Smith Farm this season.  This will serve as a pilot project to provide grower experience and as a side benefit, community exposure to the new crop.

We will require a nominal amount of seed money to support the costs associated with coordinating the interdisciplinary team, conducting meetings and site visits as well as recovering seed production costs for this season’s tropical maize pilot project.

Phase 2 (2010-2014) – Proposal Implementation

The proposed project is strategically designed to determine the value and flexibility of tropical maize as a sugar, cellulosic, and thermal biofuel feedstock and alternatively, a high energy forage crop.  It will span multiple years with the work plan for each year building progressively on data obtained from all aspects of the preceding year.  We propose four interrelated aims, to be conducted concurrently in order to identify and mitigate potential barriers throughout the value chain, and utilize the multidisciplinary resources of our team to develop innovative solutions.  This approach will expedite near term commercialization of tropical maize.

Specific Aim 1 – Field Evaluation.

Production trials will be conducted focusing on the specific usage of the crop, both bioenergy and forage. We will test the interactions of genetics, nitrogen rates, population density, planting and harvest dates to determine how these factors affect biomass and stalk sugar accumulation. Sampling will also be conducted throughout the growing season to measure biomass, biofuel production and nutritional feed values.

Specific Aim 2 –Qualitative Analysis of Tropical Maize Biomass.

This aim will qualitatively assess biological samples obtained from Aim 1 to determine structural and chemical attributes, including cellulose and hemicellulose content, lignin, total non-structural carbohydrates, and sugars.  In addition, we will analyze the potential for fermentation and test lignocellulosic biomass in a range of thermochemical processing strategies.

Specific Aim 3-Economic Analysis and Rural Outreach.

This aim will identify the economic challenges and incentives related to growing tropical maize.  This site will function to increase bioenergy crop outreach and awareness in rural communities, who are a key beneficiary of this research.

Specific Aim 4 –Tropical Maize in Commercial-scale Biorefinery.

One of the most important features to eventual deployment of any feedstock is its practicality at the commercial scale. We will test this directly by allowing a commercial producer of biofuel to test the use of tropical maize as a feedstock under industrial production conditions.  We will evaluate potential barriers to processing, transportation and storage of tropical maize, for which further investigation may be required throughout the experimental life of the project.

Potential Impact

Farmers and bioenergy producers will be the primary beneficiaries of this research. Rural communities will benefit from an environmentally sustainable crop that does not require high chemical inputs, preserving soil and water quality.  Farmers will economically benefit from a flexible annual crop that can be managed for high energy value or forage value, does not require new machinery and fits into existing crop rotation schedules.  Tropical maize production also averts the risks associated with the establishment and long-term maintenance of perennial crops.  The potentially rapid deployment of tropical maize, with minimal risk and agricultural changes to producers, means this high energy biofuel crop should have a large and rapid impact on the biofuel and animal feed industries.