Biomass Water Efficiency

OPEN 2015
Project Term:
04/01/2016 - 09/30/2019

Critical Need:

The U.S. transportation system is hugely reliant on petroleum, a resource that accounts for 42% of U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Low- or zero-carbon fuel alternatives, like biofuels produced from cellulosic biomass, can reduce harmful emissions while diversifying the resources we rely on for transportation. The development of domestic biofuel sources will also further reduce the amount of imported crude oil uses in the transportation sector. However, biomass production can be land and water intensive, and limited arable land and freshwater supplies constrain expansion of biomass production for biofuel. Advanced technologies could enable plant breeders to identify and utilize plant traits that produce higher yielding and higher quality crops that overcome these challenges. Notably, increasing the efficiency of water use in bioenergy crops, specifically sorghum, has the potential to expand the acreage suitable for biofuel production and increase biomass yield.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) team proposes to increase the water-use efficiency in sorghum production, enabling plants to produce the same yield with 40% less water. By analyzing mathematical models of crop physiology and biophysics, the UIUC team has identified multiple strategies to improve water-use efficiency. In one instance, the team will decrease water loss within plants by shifting photosynthetic activity from leaves at the top of crop canopy where it is drier to lower leaves that operate in higher humidity. To increase photosynthesis in lower leaves, the upper canopy leaves will need to be a lighter shade of green and more vertical to allow more light to penetrate the canopy. Additionally, the team will alter the density and activity of the pores, called stomata, on the leaves that regulate CO2 uptake and water loss for the plant. UIUC will utilize both biotechnology and advanced molecular breeding techniques to implement these strategies. These water-efficient sorghum technologies will open up more than 9.5 million acres of lower quality land in the Midwest for sorghum production without relying on irrigation. Additionally, it will increase yields across current arable, rain-fed land. These techniques could be applied to other agricultural crops, such as corn, sugarcane and Miscanthus. The development of this water-use efficiency biotechnology will advance the efficiency of biomass production, reducing dependence on foreign oil imports and decreasing CO2 emissions.

Potential Impact:

If successful, the UIUC project team will improve water-use efficiency of energy sorghum plants, increasing overall sorghum yields and ultimately accelerating domestic production of sustainable, renewable, and affordable liquid transportation fuels.


Increased energy sorghum production for domestic liquid transportation fuels would diversify the resources we rely on for transportation, thus further reducing dependence upon imported crude oil.


The team’s innovations could decrease the amount of water needed to grow energy sorghum and other crops, reducing the demand on limited freshwater supplies.


These advances could help diversify the resources we rely on for transportation thus securing against price shocks.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Rachel Slaybaugh
Project Contact:
Prof. Andrew Leakey
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Cropping Systems Laboratory, USDA-ARS
Cornell University
University of Wisconsin

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