ISU-led group awarded $25 million grant for land use, biofuel production study

AMES, Iowa – Perhaps the three largest issues to face agriculture in this century are the food-versus-fuel debate in biofuel production, water and nutrient runoff, and soil erosion.

Now, an Iowa State University-based study over the next five years will examine whether a single, coordinated production system can address all of these concerns while making profits for producers.

A multi-state, interdisciplinary team led by Ken Moore, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agronomy, recently won a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s National Institute of Food and Agriculture 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.

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.

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 $7 per bushel will require developing a market for that perennial grass that gives producers a solid return.

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

These marginal lands are primarily riparian lands near waterways, Moore added.

Moore points out that often these lands are planted in corn and can have their yields reduced or lost due to flooding.

The research will focus on harvesting the grasses – mostly native species such as bluestem and switchgrass – and using the biomass as a feedstock for a biofuel process known as pyrolysis.

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