Biofuel program eyes marginal lands

An Iowa State University-led team recently won a $25 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to develop the blueprint for using marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses that will, in turn, provide a biomass source for a drop-in biofuel.

Growing perennial grasses on that marginal Midwest cropland has many environmental advantages, including reducing soil and nutrient runoff, slowing soil erosion and increasing carbon sequestration. 

The problem is, how do you get farmers to switch from corn – currently selling for around $7 a bushel – to the much less lucrative switchgrass and bluestem used in creating bio-oil via the process known as pyrolysis?

Researchers hope to pull this off by developing a market for the drop-in fuel (defined as a fuel that is compatible with existing engines, pipelines and refineries ) and convincing farmers to use their marginal, less productive lands. 

According to team leader Ken Moore of Iowa State, “In general, the lands we are using in the research aren’t really very good for producing food, so we are taking the food-versus-fuel argument out of the equation,” he said.

“By using perennial grasses on this land, we are reducing soil erosion, improving soil and water quality and even providing wildlife habitat.”

Researchers will also examine the best way to grow, harvest, transport, refine and distribute the biomass and biofuel.

Another part of the study will be looking at ways to produce bluestem and switchgrass with the traits needed for optimum bio-gas production while another team will study refining the pyrolysis process.

* Steve Duda, EarthTechling