Michigan State University (MSU) researchers recently won a $5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to study how biofuel crops acquire nitrogen.
The study could provide insights that help maximize crop yields while minimizing fertilizer use.
Sarah Evans, an integrative biologist at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station, said she and a team of her MSU colleagues will spend the next five years trying to understand how plants interact with microbes living near plant roots to obtain nutrients. The study will focus on biofuel crops growing in abandoned farmlands.
“The main products from the study will be research articles in peer reviewed journals that can be used to inform industry,” Evans said. “We will also have a website to share results with the public, but we have no formal plans to make industry recommendations.”
The team will conduct the study at six sites in Michigan and Wisconsin. Along with growing plots of switchgrass and miscanthus, both fertilized and unfertilized, the scientists will study a blend of five species of native grasses and a mix of 18 species of prairie plants.
Switchgrass is one of a handful of crops currently used to produce ethanol. Abengoa last October opened a bio-refinery in Kansas, where the company said it will produce ethanol by processing 1,000 tons per day of biomass. Of that biomass, 80 percent consists of irrigated corn stover, with the remainder comprised of switchgrass and other crops.
Fuel ethanol use has grown rapidly in recent years, increasing by nearly one quadrillion British thermal units between 2000 and 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
MSU said that the idea behind the new study is to test whether biofuels grow better in a mixed-plant setting or on their own, and whether the crop lands could be used to provide other ecosystem services, such as increased biodiversity or habitat restoration.
Lead image: Grass from roots on white background. Credit: Shutterstock.