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Researching profitable and sustainable biofuels

November 2, 2010 - 2:00pm


  • Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center received Recovery Act funding from DOE
  • Center studies carbon cycling, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions in biofuel cropping systems
  • Research could significantly shorten time to harvest perennial crops for biofuels

The Michigan State University professor of crop and soil sciences leads the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center’s sustainability research.“Our aim is to provide the knowledge needed to deploy biofuel cropping systems that are both profitable and environmentally sustainable,” says Phil Robertson.

Biofuel sustainability is a major research theme of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a partnership between the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, two national laboratories and several other institutions. Michigan State’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) is the principal field site for GLBRC sustainability research.

Funding accelerates sustainability research

More than $4 million in Recovery Act funding from the Biomass program is being used to enhance and accelerate GLBRC sustainability research, which focuses on the design of cellulosic cropping systems and the economic, climate-stabilizing, and biodiversity benefits they can provide. 

The new funding, which augments core funding from the DOE’s Office of Science, is being used to study carbon cycling, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuel cropping systems, as well as develop more complex modeling technology, according to Robertson.

Modeling activities require substantial computing resources to integrate satellite imagery and land use information into mathematical models of biofuel production for the entire United States. The models, run on new parallel computers and based on results from experiments at Michigan and Wisconsin field sites, will allow researchers and decision-makers to see possible answers to "what if" questions about various biofuel crops in various landscapes, explains Robertson.

Heading to the forest

Perenniality, productivity, polycultural tolerance – “We call it the three P’s,” says Randy Jackson. Jackson works on the sustainability team for GLBRC at University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Those three P’s are the focus of GLBRC’s sustainability branch and three major principles of bioenergy crop systems: perenniality— the plants’ growth cycle; productivity— how much is needed to make biofuel; and polycultural tolerance— how the plant plays into surrounding environments.

GLBRC is running field experiments and measurements on the three P’s, as well as nutrient conservation, biodiversity and land use in bioenergy cropping systems. The center’s main mission is to develop the basic science and principles needed to overcome bottlenecks in converting biomass to biofuels.

“We ultimately want to know the factors in these cropping systems and how they play into creating ethanol,” says Jackson.

In addition to investigating field crops in agricultural areas, GLBRC is using Recovery Act funding to extend field sites to forested regions in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Jackson notes that in much of the upper Midwest there are many areas of abandoned farmland now reverting to low-productivity forest. 

“We’re exploring whether these areas, which weren’t the most productive agricultural sites for field crops in the first place, might be a good niche for biofuel trees like poplar,” says Jackson. 

By integrating field results with models, GLBRC researchers are able to assess how these factors— the three P’s— can best provide both economically and environmentally sustainable biofuels.

"We need to ensure that the crops we'll be using for cellulosic energy do in fact contribute to climate stabilization and cleaner air and water, as well as provide biodiversity benefits such as habitat for birds and beneficial insects. Recovery Act funding is allowing us to make better decisions sooner,” says Robertson.