Argonne National Laboratory agronomist and environmental engineer Cristina Negri 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.
Argonne National Laboratory agronomist and environmental engineer Cristina Negri 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.
FAIRBURY, Ill. — A systems approach linking the agriculture, energy and environmental sectors to produce biomass feedstock is being tested in Livingston County.

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 to Negri.

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 that?

“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 fossil fuels.

“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 said.

“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 food.

“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 explained.

Information collected through Geographic Information System mapping will determine the location of the nonproductive or underproductive soil.

“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 said.

“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 production.”

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 said.

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 said.

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.