FAIRBURY, Ill. — A systems approach linking the agriculture,
energy and environmental sectors to produce biomass feedstock is being tested in
Argonne National Laboratory, led by Cristina Negri,
agronomist and environmental engineer, is conducting bioenergy crops research in
collaboration with farmers in the Indian Creek watershed.
The in-field research focuses on producing bioenergy crops
without competing with food and feed crops.
One example is planting woody crops on parts of a field that
would not be productive for corn or soybeans. This approach would save on crop
insurance and provide clean water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according
She recently hosted a Bioenergy Crops in Central Illinois
workshop to discuss opportunities and technical aspects of growing bioenergy
crops as a conservation practice with a revenue potential. Farmers currently
growing bioenergy crops along with academia representatives were among the
presenters at the workshop.
Negri said her research near Fairbury does not focus on
corn-based ethanol, but rather the new advanced biofuels produced by
lignocellulosic energy crops — willows, poplars, switchgrass, miscanthus and
prairie grasses, for example — or residues, such as stover and waste.
“We want to do this because of energy independence by
reducing oil imports and eventually saving money. We also do it to decrease
greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
“We also have a tall order to fill,” she said of the
Renewable Fuel Standard. “We have to come up with a certain amount of advanced
biofuels feedstock by 2022, and we’re not there yet, so how do we go about this
and how do we make sure that we find enough land and resources to do
“We are really not inventing anything new. Bioenergy has
been with mankind since the very early ages, (when the land produced feed for
horses.) We just need to find a modern solution to an old issue.
“The questions are: How do we find land for biomass? And how
can biomass fit into Midwest grain production?”
The benefits of using renewable bioenergy crops are they
produce more energy than they consume and they emit less greenhouse gasses than
“The detractors are concerned that the more land we put into
production, the more we use water, and the more water becomes contaminated with
fertilizers and other chemicals, so overall is it a benefit or not,” Negri
“The second issue is land use change. The concern is that
the more we take land away from food crops, the more somebody else in other
parts of the world will have to take down native landscapes to plant
“More practically speaking, some of these crops have not
been studied nearly as much as corn and soybeans, so the knowledge that’s
available to producers is less, and there are a lot more trials that have to go
on, so there’s a learning curve for everybody to fill and learn.”
Another major issue is creating a market that would improve
demand for the product.
“The other question is: If you are a potential biorefinery,
how you decide to get into an area and set your plant there if there’s not
supply? So it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation that keeps going around and
needs a resolution,” Negri said. “The road is not totally clear, but hopefully
with time, experience and learning, we’ll get there.”
She said this research began near Fairbury with a
field-scale study and plans are to “take some of the data we get from the field
study and expand it to a larger scale and try to make an assessment of if it
works this way on a small scale, what would that mean if we expanded the study
to a larger area?”
“We do that from models and field work,” she
Information collected through Geographic Information System
mapping will determine the location of the nonproductive or underproductive
“Hopefully, in a few years, we’ll be able to see if there is
anybody who is willing to try out some of these crops on their land. From that,
we’ll get more data points, and eventually we’ll get model validation,” Negri
“The important thing is we need (the producers’) input to
find a workable solution to grow biomass in this region.”
This project is unique in that it doesn’t dedicate an entire
field to one bioenergy crop, but rather focuses on piecing those crops together
with corn and soybeans.
“We want to exploit intra-field variations and target land
where other uses are less profitable. We want to use the lost nitrogen for
passive fertilizer application on the bioenergy crops. Basically, we want to
optimize the land for profit, but we also for water quality and ecosystems
services,” Negri said.
“In other words, we want to find that sweet spot where it is
cost-effective to grow biomass rather than corn and soybeans because corn and
soybeans don’t grow perhaps as well there. That is one way we can actually get
bio-crops in this region.
“It would be going from the typical crop production field
pattern to a system in which we consider the landscape, and we see every soil
and do fractions of a field for what it can do. This would be one way where we
can find room for these crops without taking away significant corn and soybean
She referred to research in a corn production area of
Nebraska where willow and poplar trees were grown in a field of underproductive
land. The trees fed off the nitrogen coming from the nearby corn.
“We hope we can find a way in which we can increase the
efficiency of the application of fertilizer so whatever isn’t taken up by the
corn is taken up by the bioenergy crop planted in an unproductive area,” Negri
Based on a cost model, the preliminary evaluation showed
“the sweet spot is very doable,” she noted.
“The land that is very valuable for conservation land will
stay conservation. There wouldn’t be an incentive to turn it into bioenergy
crops. But the land that is less valuable for conservation and less productive
for corn is actually the interesting gone to grow something else,” she
Marginal and underused land includes land that floods, land
that always is moist, land that is too dry or eroded and road buffers.
“It is still a work in progress. The real solution will come
from many people working together,” Negri said.