Sugar set for ‘energycane’ reinvention

Sugar set for ‘energycane’ reinvention

March 21, 2019
Marcia González

Australia’s sugarcane growers are facing a falling sugar price, driven by declining world demand and increased competition in India and Brazil. The industry must look to the future

In the face of falling global demand for sugar, gene-editing sugarcane for use in renewable energy and bio-plastics could help safeguard the industry’s future, a University of Queensland (UQ) professor has suggested.

“The industry must think beyond just producing sugar, to also producing electricity, biofuels for transportation and oils to replace traditional plastics,” explained Professor Robert Henry, director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) at UQ (pictured above).

“It’s about reinventing sugarcane as a crop with a wider range of end uses, and sugarcane is ideal for renewables because it is fast-growing with abundant biomass,” Henry noted.

The QAAFI scientist is working with a global team to sequence the sugarcane genome as part of a US Joint Genome Institute project. “Sugar is the last major cultivated plant to have its genome sequenced, and we expect to see it fully decoded by 2020,” Henry continued. “Having sugar’s genetic template will allow us to look at growing sugarcane as a biofuel and a source of 100% recyclable bioplastic, making it a substitute for petroleum in the production of countless items from cosmetics to car parts.”

Henry, who has helped lead genomic breakthroughs in decoding the sugarcane genome, said the science was quickly developing to allow growers to tap into the commercial opportunities in renewables. “The industry must look to the future.”

QAAFI researchers supported by the US Joint BioEnergy Institute and Sugar Research Australia through an Australian Research Council Linkage grant are testing a range of sugarcane varieties to identify which types produce ethanol most effectively and efficiently. Researchers are also collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi to investigate processes that break down sugarcane fiber to make bioplastics.

“Drinks bottles made from sugarcane bioplastics are just one product on the agenda from this collaboration,” Henry concluded. “Economics is the key. Now that we understand more about the genetics of sugarcane, these sorts of products are becoming commercially realistic.”

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