Corn hybrid might grow cheaper

By Ebonique Wool

University professors Stephen Moose and Fred Below have discovered that a tropical variety of corn could possibly make ethanol production cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Tropical corn, a crop grown in certain equatorial regions of the world, is unique because it needs little to no nitrogen in order to grow.

One of the drawbacks of using nitrogen as fertilizer in crop production is the expense farmers must incur. Nitrogen can also be environmentally harmful when it runs into streams and water supplies, causing high bacteria levels, said Moose, associate professor of maize genomics.


photo DI multimedia



Tropical corn trumps

Click to view an audio demonstration of the different gas production processes.

It’s in farmers’ best interest to use less nitrogen for both economical and environmental reasons, Moose said.

“One of the issues in using corn for ethanol is you need a lot of nitrogen to make corn grain. There’s also a lot of energy used to make nitrogen fertilizer,” Moose said. “When looking at the cost of producing it, (regular) corn isn’t the best product for making ethanol.”

Illinois has seen a recent increase in ethanol production statewide. There were only four existing ethanol plants in Illinois as of Jan. 1, 2000, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. As of Aug. 31, 2007, 59 new plants are being used or are in the process of being built or approved.

One of the benefits of ethanol is that it can reduce the cost of gas at the pump, according to the Web site of the National Corn Growers Association. Combining ethanol with gasoline produces a less expensive product. Ethanol also improves air quality by emitting fewer hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, and less carbon monoxide and hydrogen by as much as 25 percent, which helps reduce greenhouse gasses.

The University team’s research allows production of ethanol and butanol at lower cost than corn grown in the United States.

For the past eight years, the team has been studying how corn reacts to low amounts of nitrogen fertilizer.

Moose looks for genes that could create a crop that uses less nitrogen to grow, and Below, professor of crop physiology, works with production of the corn crop to maximize its potential and produce it at the lowest cost.

Below and Moose cross-pollinated regular corn and tropical corn to create a hybrid to use in their experimentation.

“Because the day length of 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night (in the tropics), the night in America isn’t long enough to make (the tropical corn) flower,” Moose said.

When the ear of the corn is not pollinated, the sugar created in the plant for the ear is backed up in the stalk of the plant.

“Usually you take the seeds and grind them up, then there’s a process to convert the starch to sugar and the sugar to ethanol,” Moose said.

The stalks are squeezed and the sugar is directly extracted. This is the same method used to extract sugar from sugar cane.

The sugar product from the corn is given to Hans Blaschek, professor and director of the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research, who works with the sugar to convert it into ethanol.

“We test to see what the sugars are and try to grow some of the organisms to see how they perform,” Blaschek said. “The kinds of sugars that are present are very encouraging.”

The center has been successful in making biobutanol, a bio gas more energy efficient than ethanol, in the lab.

“It’s very exciting to me because it may be that the amount of processing is going to be less than other types of materials, and if that’s the case, it’s going to be more economically viable,” Blaschek said.

The process of growing the tropical corn hybrid is exactly the same as growing regular corn, so it’s easier for farmers to grow the crop, Below said.

“The seed is the same, the planting is the same, all other processes are the same, except it uses less fertilizer than regular corn,” Below said. “One of the nice things about maize is that the sugar it stores in its stalk is sucrose. It’s one of the few crops that make ready-to-ferment sugars.”

In both the growing and processing stages, tropical corn’s prospects are lucrative. For farmers, the growing stage of the corn would also cost less than regular corn. Below and Moose also hope to improve farming in places where soil quality is not as good as it is in the Midwest.

“It would be a fifth of what is needed by what farmers use now to produce grain and possibly none at all if it was a fertile field,” Moose said. “In other places in the world where the soil isn’t very good, having corn that uses less nitrogen would be a great benefit.”