Range Fuels announced Tuesday it is partnering with Ceres to develop leafy plants for biofuels.

The Broomfield, Colo.-based cellulosic-ethanol company last spring planted switchgrass and sorghum varieties near Soperton, Ga., with seeds and support from Ceres and the cooperation of a local farmer. It hopes the effort will help determine which plants can successfully be grown in the region.

Range Fuels said it is seeking noninvasive plants that aren't used as food, that yield high amounts of biomass and that have minimal impact on the environment.

The news is the latest in a series of efforts to grow crops specifically for biofuels.

Destiny Sustainable Energy Farm in Florida last month announced it had planted 20 acres of sorghum for biofuel and planned to experiment with other crops (see Florida Finds Destiny in Energy Farm). Earlier the same month, Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Ceres said it had begun harvesting new switchgrass and sorghum seeds and planned to sell the seeds in the spring (see Ceres Reaps First Switchgrass, Sorghum Harvest). 

And in April, Oklahoma said it would plant more than 1,100 acres of switchgrass for ethanol (see Oklahoma Switches to Switchgrass).

But while the idea of growing nonfood fuel crops could be catching on, it's controversial.

While advocates of cellulosic ethanol, for example, have said the fuel could use waste materials that aren't used for food today – expanding the amount of ethanol that could be made without competing with food – so far, harvesting and gathering far-flung materials such as switchgrass has proven more difficult and costly than some companies had expected.

The idea of farming nonfood biofuel crops is attractive because it would make it easier to grow and collect mass quantities of the stuff, meaning it would be cheaper to make into fuel.

But while a number of companies work to develop nonfood crops for biofuels, some - such as Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute - have said that using farmland to grow fuel crops also would jeopardize the food supply by using up land that could otherwise be used to grow food (see Lester Brown Talks Smack About Ethanol).

Biofuels have taken heat from critics who have aired concerns about their impact on the environment and on food prices (see Time magazine stories here and here).

Meanwhile, in June, the Carnegie Institution for Science released a story that estimated that up to 1.8 million square miles of abandoned farmland could be used to grow energy crops globally.