Alan Diaz, Associated Press
This winter is an excellent test for a sugarcane hybrid developed in Louisiana as a potential biofuel crop, according to a professor at Mississippi State University.

This winter is an excellent test for a sugarcane hybrid developed in Louisiana as a potential biofuel crop, according to a professor at Mississippi State University.

Starkville is among six spots where hybrids dubbed "energycane" are being tested to see how much cold they can take.

Brian Baldwin, a professor of plants and soil science, is keeping an eye on 300 plants from 74 strains with slightly different genetics, all developed at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Station in Houma. The last two winters were so warm that all 300 grew back, he said.

This winter is shaping up to be Starkville's 13th coldest since 1891, with an average temperature so far of 40.7 degrees, said National Weather Service meteorologist Daniel Lamb. That compares to last winter's average of 48.1 degrees and an overall average winter average of 44.3 degrees.

"I think we'll be able to see some big differences this spring," said Baldwin.

Researchers in Raymond, Miss.; St. Gabriel, La.; Tifton and Athens, Ga.; College Station and Beaumont, Texas; and Waimanalo, Hawaii also are testing such hybrids as part of a $17.3 million U.S. Department of Energy project. The various sites are growing seven strains in common — those that have best tolerated cold in earlier tests, Baldwin said. He said the others are newer variations.

LSU developed the first energycane — a cross between sugarcane, or Saccharum officinarum, and a related grass called Saccharum spontaneum — in 1979, said Anna Hale of the USDA research station, where scientists have worked since 1919 to improve sugarcane.

For work using USDA money, the research station uses such hybrids to make sugarcane more resistant to disease or cold. The grant-funded energycane work uses plants that otherwise would be discarded, she said.

They are envisioned as feedstock for next-generation biofuels: gasoline and diesel made from agricultural waste and plants that are not used as food, and would produce far fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum-based fuels.

But work toward that goal is going far more slowly than expected in 2007, when Congress ordered the use of such so-called cellulosic fuels and required ethanol to be mixed into gasoline as a "bridge fuel" until they were available.

The fiber in sugarcane has more carbohydrates than the juice from which sugar is produced, but it's harder to use them because of "the intransigence of lignin," said Collins Kimbeng, a plant breeder at the LSU AgCenter's Sugar Research Station in St. Gabriel.

Lignin, like cellulose, strengthens plants' cell walls. It's hard to break those substances down by heat, chemicals or microbes, making it difficult to make fuel from them.

Last year, companies produced an estimated 6 million gallons of cellulosic fuel. That's less than 1 percent of the amount originally required under the 2007 law and less than half the 14 million gallons called for under Environmental Protection Agency standards set in January 2013.

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An Obama administration proposal made in November calls for 17 million gallons of cellulosic fuels to be mixed into gasoline. The original law required 1.75 billion.

Groundbreaking for a refinery to process wood into 10 million gallons of high-octane gasoline a year is scheduled Feb. 26 at the Port of Alexandria, La., said Michael Rocke of Cool Planet Energy Systems, headquartered south of Denver in Greenwood Village, Colo. He said it should be in production by the end of this year.

The company's prefabricated refineries can process whatever grows well locally, he said.