Marginal lands are prime fuel source for alternative energy

January 16, 2013, Michigan State University
Marginal lands can serve as prime real estate for meeting the nation's alternative energy production goals. Credit: Courtesy of MSU.

Marginal lands ­– those unsuited for food crops – can serve as prime real estate for meeting the nation's alternative energy production goals.

In the current issue of Nature, a team of researchers led by Michigan State University shows that marginal lands represent a huge untapped resource to grow mixed species cellulosic biomass, plants grown specifically for fuel production, which could annually produce up to 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol in the Midwest alone.

"Understanding the environmental impact of widespread biofuel production is a major unanswered question both in the U.S. and worldwide," said Ilya Gelfand, lead author and MSU postdoctoral researcher. "We estimate that using marginal lands for growing cellulosic could provide up to 215 gallons of ethanol per acre with substantial mitigation."

The notion of making better use of marginal land has been around for nearly 15 years. However, this is the first study to provide an estimate for the greenhouse gas benefits as well as an assessment of the total potential for these lands to produce significant amounts of biomass, he added.

Focusing on 10 Midwest states, Great Lakes Bioenergy researchers from MSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used 20 years of data from MSU's Kellogg Biological Station LTER Site to characterize the comparative productivity and greenhouse gas impacts of different crops, including corn, poplar, alfalfa and old field vegetation.

They then used a supercomputer to identify and model biomass production that could grow enough feedstock to support a local with a capacity of at least 24 million gallons per year. The final tally of 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol represents about 25 percent of Congress' 2022 cellulosic biofuels target, said Phil Robertson, co-author and MSU professor of crop, soil and microbial sciences.

"The value of for energy production has been long-speculated and often discounted," he said. "This study shows that these lands could make a major contribution to transportation energy needs while providing substantial climate and – if managed properly – conservation benefits."

This also is the first study to show that grasses and other non-woody plants that grow naturally on unmanaged lands are sufficiently productive to make ethanol production worthwhile. Conservative numbers were used in the study, and production efficiency could be increased by carefully selecting the mix of plant species, Robertson added.

"With conservation in mind, these marginal lands can be made productive for bioenergy production and, in so doing, contribute to avoid the conflict between food and ," said Cesar Izaurralde, PNNL soil scientist and University of Maryland adjunct professor.

Additional benefits for using marginal lands include:
New revenue for farmers and other land owners
No indirect land-use effects, where land in another part of the globe is cleared to replace land lost here to food production
No carbon debt from land conversion if existing vegetation is used or if new perennial crops are planted directly into existing vegetation

Explore further: To avoid carbon debt, CRP beats fields of corn, soybeans

More information: Paper DOI: 10.1038/nature11811

Related Stories

Energy crops impact environmental quality

April 4, 2010

Crop residues, perennial warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops are potential biomass sources for cellulosic ethanol production. While most research is focused on the conversion of cellulosic feeedstocks into ...

Recommended for you

Sculpting stable structures in pure liquids

February 21, 2019

Oscillating flow and light pulses can be used to create reconfigurable architecture in liquid crystals. Materials scientists can carefully engineer concerted microfluidic flows and localized optothermal fields to achieve ...

LMC S154 is a symbiotic recurrent nova, study suggests

February 21, 2019

Astronomers have conducted observations of a symbiotic star in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), known as LMC S154, which provide new insights about the nature of this object. Results of these observations, presented in a ...

Bacteria can survive starvation in zombie mode

February 21, 2019

Bacteria that are exposed to a hostile environment, for example with antibiotics or very few nutrients, can sometimes survive by 'going to sleep." Biologists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have discovered an unknown, ...

Origins of giant extinct New Zealand bird traced to Africa

February 21, 2019

Scientists have revealed the African origins of New Zealand's most mysterious giant flightless bird – the now extinct adzebill – showing that some of its closest living relatives are the pint-sized flufftails from Madagascar ...

How to freeze heat conduction

February 21, 2019

Physicists have discovered a new effect, which makes it possible to create excellent thermal insulators which conduct electricity. Such materials can be used to convert waste heat into electrical energy.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 16, 2013
Well, hopefully not ethanol. Go Butanol!
"Butanol has a 30 percent higher energy content than ethanol, lower vapor pressure, and is less volatile, less flammable, and mixes well with gasoline,"
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 16, 2013
"Marginal land" means marginal for farming, it says nothing about the value of the land in general. E.g. the rain forests are marginal land.
2.3 / 5 (6) Jan 16, 2013
With Colorado going legal we may see some hemp fuel in the near future along with a few thousand other products. The US imports 2 billion dollars of hemp from Canada and China annually. It will be a nice bump for the Colorado economy.
Now if we could get the federal government to legalize it and let the 70 mpg fords into this country or even better, make them here, marginal land might have a better chance getting us around.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2013
Well, hopefully not ethanol. Go Butanol!

Ethanol is a smaller molecule. So for the same amount of land you can produce more ethanol than butanol.

The figure of merit to use here is energy per area of arable land per year.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2013
I use Butanol at work. OMG that stuff stinks.

And that smell doesn't seem to go away for days. No thank you.
2 / 5 (2) Jan 17, 2013
@Lord_jag: Pure butanol in the open air *is* stinky and is not in consideration to be a transportation fuel itself. Offensiveness to consumers is a valid yet frequently unconsidered element of sustainable fuel research.

As an additive to petrol though you can hardly tell and is really a transition strategy. A purely sustainable fuel goal is probably going to be grades of biodiesel.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2013
An annual yield of "up to 215 gallons of ethanol per acre" is a very low conversion of solar energy compared to the 15% or so conversion efficiency of solar cells.

At 22.2 kWh per gallon and 215 gallons per acre, the annual energy per sq. meter is 1.18 kWh, which represents less than 1/10 of a percent of the annual solar radiation in the US Midwest. For example, Flint, Michigan receives about 1400 kWh per sq. meter of solar radiation annually; and, Springfield, Illinois, 1540 kWh.
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 18, 2013
using biomass for anything but waste products is a complete waste. It's a technology that is too far out in development to be considered a viable alternative, solar, wind, and LFTR reactors are the way to go. Conservation, and tidal power are also decent alternatives to add to the mix.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2013
The biofuels aren't sustainable solution. Without fertilizes (reintroduction of nitrogen) the systematical removal of biomatter from lands will change the soil into nutrient poor inert dust without life, i.e. the desert. Apparently the modern people aren't aware of these most trivial connections, or they simply want to ignore and to transfer their problems with dependence on fossil fuels to developing countries.
1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2013
"Realistically" At first the big money will be for smoking. Down the road a couple years those huge biomass plants the govmint built sitting idle from failed sunflower projects in Colorado, might be great for fuel production or replacing every petrol product in home depot, lowes etc with hemp based products. (Jack Herer "Emperor Wears no clothes") I may be a dreamer, but I am not the only one.
1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2013
Settle down now! Modern people know about crop rotation using nitrogen fixers such as alfalfa. Hemp can be a potential part in a sustainable reality.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.