Friday 11 November 2011

US researchers studying using perennial grasses for biofuels and biochar

Farmers in the United States will be urged to grow perennial grasses for biofuel production, as a result of a $25 million research grant aimed at developing transportation and aviation biofuels made from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources.

According to Wallaces Farmer, a multi-state, interdisciplinary team led by Ken Moore, Iowa State University professor of agronomy, recently won a $25 million USDA grant and will develop the blueprint for using marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses that will, in turn, provide a biomass source for a drop-in biofuel.

The article states that growing perennial grasses on marginal Midwest cropland has many environmental advantages, including reducing soil and nutrient runoff, slowing soil erosion and increasing carbon sequestration. Growing those grasses currently has few benefits for the farmers who own the land and make the production decisions, however. And convincing farmers to take land out of corn production when prices hover near $6 to $7 per bushel will require developing a market for the perennial grass that gives farmers a solid return. The researchers claim that using marginal land for this kind of biofuel production takes the "food-versus-fuel" argument out of the equation.

"In general, the lands we are using in our research aren't really very good for producing food, so we are taking the food-versus-fuel argument out of the equation," says Moore. "By using perennial grasses on this land, we are reducing soil erosion, improving soil and water quality and even providing wildlife habitat."

The comprehensive study will also involve researchers from many disciplines in order to look at the big picture. For instance, some will be studying pyrolysis, which is a process that uses thermal decomposition of biomass in the absence of oxygen to produce an energy-rich liquid known as bio-oil. Additional refining turns the bio-oil into gasoline and petrochemicals.

A co-product of the pyrolysis process is a carbon- and nutrient-rich solid called biochar that can be used to as a soil amendment to increase the productivity of poor soils. The researchers say that preliminary research suggests that biochar can improve corn production in marginal soils, and can even double yields in poor soil.

A twitter account has been set up to follow the research at @cenusabioenergy.

Read the full article here.