Tag Archives: Biofuel

UNI student helps return cropland to native prairie Article from The Gazette

Researchers assessing benefits of converting grasses to biofuel

Tall Grass Mix

WASHBURN — University of Northern Iowa professor Mark Myers considered it a “theoretical exercise” when he assigned his wildlife ecology and management students to develop a habitat management plan for a local site.

But, said Myers, Jarrett Pfrimmer, 25, of North Liberty, “took the assignment to heart,” and a year later, prairie grass was growing on 20 acres of former cropland along a Cedar River tributary.

“I did not think he could make it happen in that short a time,” said Myers, who is working with Pfrimmer on another major project with the potential to restore natural functions of the Cedar River watershed — research to determine the feasibility of native prairie as a biofuel.

Pfrimmer, who will complete work on his master’s degree next month, said he worked with the Black Hawk County Soil and Water Conservation District to line up cost-share funding for the stream buffer project.

The Boone native said he also took advantage of expertise at UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center to plan and execute the 120-foot wide buffer strips on both sides of Dry Run Creek, which flows past the UNI campus en route to the Cedar River.

Seeded a year ago, the native vegetation will become well established next year, greatly reducing erosion from the former farm fields, improving the quality of the water flowing into the Cedar and providing habitat for songbirds, pheasants and other wildlife.

The absorbent grass also will play a small role in reducing the crest of future Cedar River floods.

“Every little bit helps” when it comes to watersheds’ ability to store and slowly release floodwaters, said State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, a leader in legislative efforts to improve watershed management.

Small-scale improvements like the two Black Hawk County projects can help create a mindset and policies “that will help buy down flood peaks for those of us downstream,” Hogg said.

In addition to the Cedar Falls stream buffer project, Pfrimmer has worked with Myers and others to assess the benefits of converting cropland into a prairie biomass production site at the 593-acre Cedar River Natural Resource Area about 10 miles south of Waterloo.

On flood plain land that had formerly been leased for row crop production, the researchers established 48 test plots, each seeded with one of four types of native vegetation ranging from switch grass alone to a mix of 32 species of grasses, legumes, forbs and sedges.

Those plantings were equally distributed among three distinct soil types, enabling the researchers to control all key factors contributing to the productivity of native grass not only as a source of energy but also as habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

The research got off to a rocky start with the historic Cedar River flood of 2008 wiping out the initial seeding. The plots were reseeded in 2009, burned in 2011 and finally harvested in April, compressed into 550-pound rectangular bales, with an average yield of 4 tons per acre.

About 150 of those bales were later pelletized for an upcoming test burn by Cedar Falls Utilities. “We’re looking to find out how well it burns for energy generation,” said Daryl Smith of the UNI Tallgrass Prairie Center, a partner in the research.

Researchers have suggested that cultivation of low-input, high-diversity grassland biomass could have significant energy and environmental advantages over corn-based ethanol, according to Myers.

While it remains to be seen whether the energy yield would justify conversion of marginal farmland to production of native vegetation for use as an energy source, biofuel production with diverse mixtures of native prairie vegetation “contributes to the maintenance of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes,” the researchers concluded.

Grassland birds and butterflies quickly found and colonized the test plots, according to Myers.

Pfrimmer, who has led bird data collection efforts, will soon complete his master’s thesis on “Bird Use of Heterogenous Native Prairie Biofuel Production Plots.”

In each of the past two years, he has found at least 100 delicate nests hidden among the grass stems by species such as the sedge wren, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow and lark sparrow. Pheasants and turkeys also have moved into the grass, he said.

“We are starting to see different bird communities established in the plots in accordance with their preferences for the vegetation mix and even the soil types,” Pfrimmer said.

Article taken From The Gazette Newspaper

To Purchase Native Wildflower & Seeds Visit Our Website At Ion Exchange, Inc.


Biofuels from Switchgrass: Greener Energy Pastures

Panicum virgatum 'Heavy Metal' Switch Grass in...

Image via Wikipedia

The grass stretched as far as the eye could see, and hundreds more miles beyond that. An ocean of grass—deep enough to swallow a horse and rider—swaying and singing in the steady wind of the Great Plains. § The American prairie—tens of millions of acres— once looked like this. But that was centuries ago, before the coming of the white man, the railroad, and the steel plow. Today, corn and beans hold sway, and the remnants of America’s tallgrass prairie are confined mostly to parks and preserves. § Now, though, in research plots and laboratories in the Plains states and even in the Deep South the seeds of change are germinating. The tall, native grasses of the prairie, so vital to our land’s ecological past, may prove equally vital to its economic future. Such grasses once fed millions of bison. Soon, grown as energy crops, they may help fuel millions of cars and trucks, spin power turbines, and supply chemicals to American industries.

Test plots of switchgrass at Auburn University have produced up to 15 tons of dry biomass per acre, and five- year yields average 11.5 tons—enough to make 1,150 gallons of ethanol per acre each year.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes that biofuels—made from crops of native grasses, such as fast- growing switchgrass—could reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, curb emissions of the “greenhouse gas” carbon dioxide, and strengthen America’s farm economy. The Biofuels Feedstock Development Program (BFDP) at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), has assembled a team of scientists ranging from economists and energy analysts to plant physiologists and geneticists to lay the groundwork for this new source of renewable energy. Included are researchers at universities, other national laboratories, and agricultural research stations around the nation. Their goal, according to ORNL physiologist Sandy McLaughlin, who leads the switchgrass research effort, is nothing short of building the foundation for a biofuels industry that will make and market ethanol and other biofuels from switchgrass and at prices competitive with fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel.
Not the grass in your backyard
First, a distinction: switchgrass and your suburban lawn grasses—bluegrass and zoysia grass— are about as similar as a shopping-mall ficus and an old-growth redwood. Switchgrass is big and it’s tough—after a good growing season, it can stand 10 feet high, with stems as thick and strong as hardwood pencils.
But what makes switchgrass bad for barefoot lawns makes it ideal for energy crops: It grows fast, capturing lots of solar energy and turning it into lots of chemical energy— cellulose—that can be liquified, gasified, or burned directly. It also reaches deep into the soil for water, and uses the water it finds very efficiently.
And because it spent millions of years evolving to thrive in climates and growing conditions spanning much of the nation, switchgrass is remarkably adaptable.
Now, to make switchgrass even more promising, researchers across the country are working to boost switchgrass hardiness and yields, adapt varieties to a wide range of growing conditions, and reduce the need for nitrogen and other chemical fertilizers. By “fingerprinting” the DNA and physiological characteristics of numerous varieties, the researchers are steadily identifying and breeding varieties of switchgrass that show great promise for the future.

Switchgrass can be cut and baled with standard farming equipment.
Yield of dreams
In the hard, shallow soil of southern Alabama, Dave Bransby is turning cotton fields into swatches of grassland. Some Alabama farmers joke that there’s no soil in Alabama to farm—two centuries of King Cotton and steady erosion haven’t left much behind. Yet Bransby, a forage scientist at Auburn University, has found a crop that thrives there: Among the 19 research sites in the Eastern and Central United States raising switchgrass for the BFDP studies, Bransby’s site holds the one-year record at 15 tons per acre. Those are dry tons weighed after all the moisture’s been baked out. Convert that into ethanol, an alcohol that can fuel vehicles, and it equals about 1,500 gallons per acre. Bransby’s 6-year average, 11.5 tons a year, translates into about 11,500 gallons of ethanol per acre. An added bonus is the electricity that can be produced from the leftover portions of the crop that won’t convert to ethanol.

Many farmers are already experienced at raising switchgrass for forage or to protect soil from erosion. Besides showing great promise for energy production, switchgrass also restores vital organic nutrients to farmed-out soils.
Many farmers already grow switchgrass, either as forage for livestock or as a ground cover, to control erosion. Cultivating switchgrass as an energy crop instead would require only minor changes in how it’s managed and when it’s harvested. Switchgrass can be cut and baled with conventional mowers and balers. And it’s a hardy, adaptable perennial, so once it’s established in a field, it can be harvested as a cash crop, either annually or semiannually, for 10 years or more before replanting is needed. And because it has multiple uses—as an ethanol feedstock, as forage, as ground cover—a farmer who plants switchgrass can be confident knowing that a switchgrass crop will be put to good use.
Farmers working in production mode might not match Bransby’s carefully tended research plots, but if the future brings rises in oil prices—or if environmental taxes are eventually imposed on fossil fuels—energy from switchgrass could prove economically competitive with petroleum and coal, making biomass crops attractive to American farmers. And with recent advances in the technology of gasification, switchgrass could yield a variety of useful fuels—synthetic gasoline and diesel fuel, methanol, methane gas, even hydrogen—as well as chemical by-products useful for making fertilizers, solvents, and plastics.
Strong environmental roots
Annual cultivation of many agricultural crops depletes the soil’s organic matter, steadily reducing fertility. But switchgrass adds organic matter—the plants extend nearly as far below ground as above. And with its network of stems and roots, switchgrass holds onto soil even in winter to prevent erosion.
Besides helping slow runoff and anchor soil, switchgrass can also filter runoff from fields planted with traditional row crops. Buffer strips of switchgrass, planted along streambanks and around wetlands, could remove soil particles, pesticides, and fertilizer residues from surface water before it reaches groundwater or streams—and could also provide energy.
And because switchgrass removes carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the air as it grows, it has the potential to slow the buildup of this greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike fossil fuels, which simply release more and more of the CO2 that’s been in geologic storage for millions of years, energy crops of switchgrass “recycle” CO2 over and over again, with each year’s cycle of growth and use.
The road ahead
One reason BFDP researchers are confident that switchgrass can become an important feedstock for ethanol production is the groundwork that’s already been laid by corn growers. U.S. ethanol production from corn currently totals nearly 2 billion gallons a year. Some of this ethanol is blended with gasoline to make gasohol; some is further refined to make gasoline octane boosters; and some is burned, either in pure (“neat”) form or mixed with a small percentage of gasoline, in fleets of research and demonstration vehicles.
Looking down the road, McLaughlin believes switchgrass offers important advantages as an energy crop. “Producing ethanol from corn requires almost as much energy to produce as it yields,” he explains, “while ethanol from switchgrass can produce about five times more energy than you put in. When you factor in the energy required to make tractors, transport farm equipment, plant and harvest, and so on, the net energy output of switchgrass is about 20 times better than corn’s.” Switchgrass also does a far better job of protecting soil, virtually eliminating erosion. And it removes considerably more CO2 from the air, packing it away in soils and roots.

Switchgrass offers excellent habitat for a wide variety of birds and small mammals.
Back to the future
At the turn of the last century, America’s transportation system was fueled by biomass: 30 million horses and mules, give or take a few million, pulled buggies, hauled wagons, dragged plows. According to Ken Vogel, a U.S. Department of Agriculture forage geneticist helping develop and test switchgrass for the BFDP, replacing animal power with machine power freed up 80 million acres of U.S. land—land that had been used to grow grass and other feed for these millions of animals. Now, at the dawn of the next century, the wheel could begin to turn full circle. On millions of acres of farm land not needed for food crops, fast-growing energy crops of switchgrass—harvested and converted efficiently to clean-burning, affordable ethanol, methanol, or diesel—could once again supply vast amounts of horsepower.
In short, biomass could bring back a 21st-century version of the prairie. And along with the prairie, it could bring a new crop to America’s farms, a boost to U.S. energy independence, and brighter prospects for a clean, sustainable future. According to BFDP and its research partners across the country, that’s a future worth cultivating.
For more information, contact:
Bioenergy Feedstock Development Program

Oak Ridge National Laboratory
P.O. Box 2008
Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6422
865-576-8143 (fax)     Produced for DOE’s Office of Transportation Technologies and the Office of Power Technologies within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy