At $17.2 million, the largest research grant won by the LSU Agricultural Center is striking at one key question about renewable energy: Can you make fuel from plants pay its freight?

“Paying its freight” is not just an expression. Part of the cost of “biomass” fuels is the expense of harvesting and transporting the plants to processing plants.

The grant over five years is part of a larger initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to come to grips with costs of biomass energy of different kinds, as well as making more fuels from different crops.

LSU’s scientists and their partners in the grant will focus on sweet sorghum and sugar cane — particularly the “energy cane” that can be grown for this purpose.

While there are more questions than answers today about biomass fuels, LSU’s work will include the costs of farming the plants as well as innovative ways to increase production on the farm and in the conversion facilities. It is a very practical initiative.

What can be definitively said is this grant represents a striking success for LSU scientists, as well as the extension agents who will work closely with farmers on the practical side of the research. A pilot plant for processing the cane or other products is to be built with part of the money.

“We built this grant through many collaborations,” noted Vadim Kochergin, head of the Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing.

It is also built through state investment in a knowledge economy. We don’t know yet whether Louisiana will be, as John Russin of the LSU Agricultural Center says, as big in the biomass energy economy as our state has been in the traditional energy sector. But having cutting-edge research here might be more valuable someday than we can readily calculate today.