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Salk, Energy Utility Partner on Carbon Capture Plants

Sorghum field

Sorghum field (Robert Klein, Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

10 Nov. 2020. A California energy utility and Salk Institute are collaborating on engineering new plant varieties that capture and store more carbon dioxide in the ground. The project, with Sempra Energy in San Diego and Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, is part of the institute’s continuing initiative to develop new crops and restore wetlands to help combat the climate crisis.

Salk Institute is best known for its biomedical science, but the institute also conducts research on plant biology. Among its undertakings is the Harnessing Plants Initiative that aims to improve the capacity of plants to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The initiative has two parts, to develop crop plant varieties that capture more carbon from the atmosphere and store the carbon in the ground for longer periods, and research to boost coastal wetlands plants’ capabilities for holding carbon dioxide as well as purifying water.

The institute’s research on new crop varieties aims to turn wheat, rice, corn, and other crops into more efficient and long-lasting carbon-storing plants. The team’s studies focus is on a type of plant tissue called suberin, found in roots and already storing carbon, but that carbon is released once the plants die. Suberin is a complex bio-polymer that protects roots and other plant tissue. Salk researchers are investigating ways of increasing root mass and depth, as well as boosting suberin content of roots to slow decomposition.

“Our plant-based approach to climate change,” says Salk’s Joanne Chory, co-director of the Harnessing Plants Initiative in a statement, “offers a win-win-win for improving soil health, feeding the world’s burgeoning population, and sequestering carbon affordably with the potential for global scale.”

The five-year collaboration with Sempra Energy, funded by $2 million from the company, is developing a new type of sorghum to grow in southern California. The goal is an engineered sorghum variety that not only stores more carbon in the ground, but can also tolerate California’s drought conditions. Sorghum is a naturally drought-tolerant grain, as well as gluten-free, and a feedstock for grazing and biofuels. In addition, sorghum has a high sugar content, and used as a table sweetener in some parts of the U.S.

Sempra Energy is a holding company with natural gas and electric power generation and distribution subsidiaries in California, Texas, and Mexico. According to Sempra’s 2019 sustainability report, the company introduced renewable natural gas, i.e. biofuels, in 2018 and aims to deliver 20 percent of its natural gas from biofuels by 2030. Also, California requires its utilities to deliver all electric power from renewable or carbon-free sources by 2045, and Sempra says its San Diego Gas and Electric Company is already delivering 45 percent of its power from those sources, five years ahead of schedule.

“This project has the potential to help remove significant amounts of carbon from entering our atmosphere,” notes Kevin Sagara, group president of Sempra Energy and an advisor to the Harnessing Plants Initiative, “and aligns with Sempra Energy’s portfolio to advance the global energy transition to lower-carbon energy sources.”

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