Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Ph.D., is expanding the impact of Texas A&M AgriLife Research in environmental sustainability and bioenergy production, with her focus on bioenergy cane. 

A field of cane under a blue sky. Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Ph.D., is focused on bioenergy cane. 
A Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist will investigate the environmental impact of growing cane as a bioenergy crop with the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation. (Photo courtesy of Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Ph.D.)

She recently joined the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, CABBI, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded bioresearch center dedicated to economic and environmentally sustainable innovation in biofuels, bioproducts and energy.

Gomez-Casanovas, assistant professor in regenerative system ecology in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, will serve on a team of 16 lead scientists within CABBI’s research priority area of sustainability.

CABBI places special emphasis on miscanthus, sorghum and cane for bioenergy production based on their potential for effective bioenergy yields. For years, the crops have served as bioenergy research subjects of CABBI and AgriLife Research.

“The economic and environmental possibilities of bioenergy have remained an important part of AgriLife Research’s strategic priority to lead innovation in support of sustainable production systems,” said G. Cliff Lamb, Ph.D., director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. “Bioenergy research brings strong potential to boost agricultural economies with new resources for advancing U.S. energy independence.”

Latest Texas A&M collaboration to focus on environmental impact of cane

Gomez-Casanovas, based at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Vernon, said her first line of research is intended to understand how cultivating cane for bioenergy in subtropical areas of the U.S. impacts the environment.

“Secondly, we will focus on enhancing environmental sustainability outcomes of cane cultivation through management strategies and plant breeding,” she added.

She said information exists on how other bioenergy crops affect biogeochemical cycles, water usage and nutrient resources, but similar research on cane is lacking.

“From an environmental perspective, our research will help us understand the costs and gains associated with cultivating cane and how we can make it more beneficial,” Gomez-Casanovas said.

While her work is focused on the environmental sustainability of this crop, productivity is a major consideration. 

“The cool thing about canes is that they can produce multiple products,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “Specifically, with sugarcane you can extract sugar as a food product or convert it to bioethanol. The remaining tissue can be used to produce even more bioethanol through advanced conversion processes, as well as bioelectricity and other high-value coproducts.”

Gomez-Casanovas said other cane varieties, such as energy and oil canes, have high fiber and oil content, which translates to very high bioethanol production potential.

Energy crop expansion across the southern U.S.

Gomez-Casanovas and her team of researchers will focus on sugarcane and energy cane, two varieties that thrive in marginal soils found throughout the southern U.S.

“The fact this crop grows well in low quality soils that don’t support food production has generated a lot of interest in the field,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “This is important because it means we aren’t displacing food crops in order to produce bioenergy.

“Further, because canes are such high-yielding feedstock, bioethanol can be produced more efficiently compared to other bioenergy crops.”

Currently, her team is utilizing cane research fields in Florida, but will expand into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

Gomez-Casanovas added that other research within CABBI has identified promising cold-tolerant varieties of energy and sugarcane, which holds the possibility of additional production development.

“The South holds huge potential to supply bioethanol and bioenergy products,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “Estimates show that this region has the potential to supply roughly one-third of the mandates set by the Energy Independence and Security Act.”

The act, signed by President George H.W. Bush in 2007, aims to move the U.S. toward greater energy independence and security while also increasing the production of clean, renewable fuels among other priorities.

Strength in diverse research expertise

Gomez-Casanovas said that in addition to research funding, a key benefit of affiliation with the CABBI is the diverse expertise collaborating researchers bring to the project.

This includes Bill Rooney, Ph.D., professor and Borlaug-Monsanto Chair for Plant Breeding and International Crop Improvement in the Texas A&M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

Rooney also serves CABBI as a lead scientist in sustainability with a focus on plant breeding and sorghum production.

“Within CABBI, we have economists, plant breeders, soil scientists, biogeochemists, plant physiologists, agronomists, engineers, geneticists and so on,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “The fact that I have the chance to work across so many disciplines with other scientists gives me the opportunity to expand my knowledge and have a greater impact.”

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