Best regions for growing bioenergy crops identified

February 17, 2016
Best regions for growing bioenergy crops identified
This figure shows how much water is used to produced one unit of ethanol (defined as water use intensity) for each energy crop. Credit: Atul Jain

New research has identified regions in the United States where bioenergy crops would grow best while minimizing effects on water quantity and quality.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used detailed models to examine impacts on quantity and in soils that would occur if existing vegetation was replaced by various bioenergy crops in the name of ethanol production.

"We expect the outcome of this study to support scientifically sound national on bioenergy crops development especially with regards to cellulosic grasses," wrote Atul Jain, professor of atmospheric sciences at U of I, regarding a paper published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Currently, corn is the dominant crop used in biofuel production. Recently, research has revealed bioenergy grasses such as Miscanthus and switchgrasses such as Alamo and Cave-in-Rock causes less to be lost due to rain and irrigation than corn. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for crops and a key ingredient in fertilizer, but nitrogen often washes away into rivers and other bodies of water where it is detrimental to aquatic ecosystems.

Another advantage bioenergy grasses and switchgrasses have over corn is their deep root system which allows them to draw water and nutrients from deeper soil levels and allows them to be more resilient in poor growing seasons.

"Growing bioenergy grasses, in general, can mitigate nitrogen leaching across the United States," said Yang Song, a graduate student and the study's lead author. "However, the greatest reduction in nitrogen leaching occurs when bioenergy crops displace other cropland or grassland, because energy crops consume more water and less nitrogen fertilizer than the crops and grasses that they replace, resulting in less water runoff and nitrogen loss."

By using a combination of crop growth, hydrological, carbon and nitrogen cycle models, researchers found that the estimated land suitable for bioenergy grasses—particularly Miscanthus, the most productive bioenergy crop—is limited, despite its relatively high biomass productivity and low water consumption per unit of ethanol.

Specifically, the most suitable regions to grow bioenergy grasses in terms of impact on water (and ultimately ) are eastern Ohio, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and the Northern Atlantic regions. Miscanthus and Cave-in-Rock are less suitable in areas such as Missouri, southern Illinois, and Mississippi River watershed regions of eastern Arkansas.

Finally, the researchers found that do best in regions with higher precipitation rates. They are more likely to fail in dryer regions with less frequent and predictable precipitation, such as the Great Plains, where environmental conditions limit production of bioenergy grasses. In the Midwest, on the other hand, the grasses are generally able to withstand periodic dry conditions because their roots can grow toward deeper and moister soil.

Explore further: Model evaluates where bioenergy crops grow best

Related Stories

Model evaluates where bioenergy crops grow best

November 24, 2014

Farmers interested in bioenergy crops now have a resource to help them determine which kind of bioenergy crop would grow best in their regions and what kind of harvest to expect.

Bioenergy crops could store more carbon in soil

October 9, 2014

(Phys.org) —In addition to providing renewable energy, grass crops like switchgrass and miscanthus could store some of the carbon they pull from the atmosphere in the soil, according to a new study by University of Illinois ...

Second-generation biofuels can reduce emissions, study says

January 11, 2016

Second-generation biofuel crops like the perennial grasses Miscanthus and switchgrass can efficiently meet emission reduction goals without significantly displacing cropland used for food production, according to a new study. ...

Grasses have potential as alternate ethanol crop, study finds

November 1, 2010

Money may not grow on trees, but energy could grow in grass. Researchers at the University of Illinois have completed the first extensive geographic yield and economic analysis of potential bioenergy grass crops in the Midwestern ...

Perennial biofuel crops' water consumption similar to corn

July 6, 2015

Converting large tracts of the Midwest's marginal farming land to perennial biofuel crops carries with it some key unknowns, including how it could affect the balance of water between rainfall, evaporation and movement of ...

Recommended for you

Scientists solve mystery of unexplained 'bright nights'

June 21, 2017

Dating back to the first century, scientists, philosophers and reporters have noted the occasional occurrence of "bright nights," when an unexplained glow in the night sky lets observers see distant mountains, read a newspaper ...

New research leverages big data to predict severe weather

June 21, 2017

Every year, severe weather endangers millions of people and causes billions of dollars in damage worldwide. But new research from Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and AccuWeather has found ...

Measuring biological dust in the wind

June 21, 2017

In the popular children's story "Horton Hears a Who!" author Dr. Seuss tells of a gentle and protective elephant who stumbles upon a speck of dust that harbors a community of microscopic creatures called the Whos living the ...

0 comments

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.