China, U.S. collaborate on sorghum for biofuels

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 06, 2008
The USDA and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology signed an accord at the International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuels in Houston in mid-August. The accord formalizes collaboration on biofuels research between scientists in the two countries.

Molecular biologist Zonglin "Lewis" Liu is one of the researchers with collaboration underway. In his work at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., Liu has developed stress-tolerant yeast strains that aren't inhibited by the toxic compounds found in the biomass-to-ethanol process. A Chinese researcher has collaborated on testing the yeast in the systems that he has under development, using corn cobs and sorghum as the substrate.

This summer, Liu traveled to China with Gale Buchanan, chief scientist and USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics, where they saw work being done in the development of cold- and drought-tolerant varieties of sweet sorghum for biofuel. "I was very impressed with the progress China has made in its sorghum biofuels research," Buchanan said in his remarks at the Houston conference. Several scientists from China were present at the event, where the accord was signed Aug. 20.

Zhao Lixin of the Chinese Academy of Chemical Engineers said not only has the Chinese government adopted a policy banning the use of food crops for biofuels production, but it has also said no existing arable land will be used for energy crops. Turning to sweet sorghum as a biofuel feedstock, a pilot-scale ethanol plant was built in 2006, which uses a conventional ethanol process in the Heilongjian province of China, he said. Researchers from Tsinghua University are also experimenting with an advanced solid state fermentation technology in Inner Mongolia.