The LSU AgCenter has received a $17.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund research into how to increase biomass production from sugar cane and sorghum.

Biomass, a renewable energy source from sugar cane, sorghum, trees, corn, switchgrass or a number of other living materials, has held particular interest for Louisiana because of a possible fit with existing crop production.

Announcing the grant Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office said the research “aims to increase regular production of biomass for economically viable conversion into biofuels using existing refinery infrastructure.”

John Russin, director of the LSU AgCenter’s 2-year-old Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing, said some of the grant will fund the creation of a pilot plant that will serve as a small-scale sugar cane and sorghum processing facility for the AgCenter and its corporate partners. That plant will allow researchers to test the potential of higher-fiber varieties of sorghum and sugar cane.

Regular commercial plants, he said, deal in volumes far too large to conduct these kinds of experiments and the bagasse, or byproduct, from the types of cane used in commercial sugar production are lower in fiber than those that hold the most promise as a fuel source.

“It’s somewhere between a lab and the real world,” he said.

Russin said there is also promise in taking bagasse and breaking it down to create plastic polymers, pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals.

Typically, bagasse is simply burned, though sometimes to make steam for the processing plant.

The grant was one of five given out throughout the country where biofuels hold promise because of the crops grown there.

Russin said the AgCenter’s efforts in this area have been funded to the tune of $1 million a year for about five years from the U.S. Department of Energy, which Russin said was key to getting the funding announced Wednesday.

“It’s the perfect model for how a congressionally directed project is supposed to work,” he said. “Pockets of money targeted to a specific issue for a specific period of time, basically seed money. This a poster child for how the system is supposed to work.”

Russin said the initiative has at least a half-dozen corporate partners, including GenCorp and SynGest, and the AgCenter’s efforts have attracted a lot of attention from biofuels companies eager to participate.

“They’re looking at Louisiana a lot more than they ever have before,” he said. “The snowball, we think, is beginning to roll.”

Russin said it is tough to gauge the accuracy of the estimates of the potential size of the biofuels industry, but that the work of the pilot plant will help determine how profitable it can be in practice.

Still, he said it has the potential to be “a significant energy sector for our country.”

“It’s probably years away,” he said, “but you’ve got to start somewhere.”