Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is in its second year of their Bioenergy Feedstock project. So far I know it’s the first and only project to explore the crops most suitable as sources for biofuels in the U.S. (There are similar, but not economically driven ones.)

Donald Viands, professor of plant breeding and genetics, who heads the project said, “Our ultimate goal is to maximize the economic benefit of bioenergy production as an alternative energy source.”

The project’s goal is to provide farmers and producers with answers to the critical questions as what crops to plant, seeding rates, weed management practices, and the other activities to produce quick renewable sources for cheap sugars to release from the plant feedstock and convert to fuels.

The project has 80 acres of different warm and cool season grasses in testing across 11 counties in New York State. With switchgrass, big bluestem and other wild grasses that are native in the U.S. the potentials in that region are getting narrowed in finding the best choices in quality and quantity for conversion to alternative fuels.

The project’s Hilary Mayton showed off an example where 12 varieties of switchgrass were planted. Some strips looked stressed and stunted while others were bountiful and healthy. These kinds of projects are critical for learning what should be done in parallel production research as processing technology progresses.

The project team is smart enough to engage with private company collaborators. When harvest is done they will obtain data for both gasification and cellulosic conversion technologies in each class of crop. This is truly basic and seriously forward-looking research.

The Cornell team must also be congratulated for their strategic sense in that some land plots were specifically chosen because they are not suitable for the common monoculture crops like corn and soybean. That study information should lead to a huge opening of marginal and highly erodable land removing some or all of the competition of food production vs. carbon recycling back into fuels.

The team is getting assistance with the Natural Resources Conservation Service both a highly regarded service to farmers and an enemy in forcing the over regulation of “wetlands” legislation. The liaison, Paul Salon, a plant materials specialist notes that the close proximity of agricultural land to major metropolitan and transportation systems makes the Northeast area ideal for developing bioenergy crops for fuels and industrial chemicals.

One has to wonder now where the land grant universities across America are in their local research. There is a huge land resource not dedicated to production in the U.S. As the oil price cycles back up, biofuels from methane up to butanol are going to be front and center in people’s minds again.

As process technology solves its problems and closes in on productivity and profitable investment there should be a known set of optimal crops that load the highest rates of biofuel feedstock per land area at the lowest cost and best return on investment for landowners and operators. The carbon recycling from the air to the crop, the processing and the fuel use before returning to the air needs attended to at the soonest possible time.

Before very long markets will exist for competitive alternative fuels in much higher volumes than we see today. Will the basic research be ready when those process technologies are ready? It’s time to nudge those governors and university regents to get on the job.

I want to congratulate the Cornell team and the Natural Resource Conservation Service for being out in front in getting ready for the future. If there is a prize somewhere for being prepared for the future these folks are top contenders.


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