Wichita Kansas State University researcher Bikram Gill imagines a day when the state's annual prairie burns give way to turning the unwanted debris into automobile fuel.
"We may harvest the grass residue and woody brush as a marketable crop," he said. "This is very exciting."
Such a process is still far down the road, but Kansas State took another step forward this week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected it to take part in a $5.7 million program looking at other ways to develop ethanol, an alternative fuel usually made with corn.
Gill's group is one of nine projects and will receive $700,000 to do genetic research on making different types of vegetation, such as native switchgrass, more conducive to being turned into ethanol.
"Switchgrass, which is a native prairie grass, is very promising," Gill said. "It's very productive and grows fast."
Scientists know plants are rich in cellulose, which is similar to the basic sugars used in making ethanol. But plants can also be much tougher to break down than corn.
"Plant cell walls have a very strong bond...which makes the wall very rigid," Gill said. "We are going to be looking at the genes of the cell wall, looking for ways they can be manipulated to make that bond easier to break."
Gill stressed that the research is the first of many steps required to see if such ethanol production is viable.