University of Illinois researchers have identified land around the globe available to produce grass crops for biofuels with minimal impact on agriculture or the environment.   Civil and environmental engineering professor Ximing Cai led the team and the results have been published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The study team’s calculation shows using only the “non-crop” land types as set forth in the study that biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce up to half of the world’s current fuel consumption – without affecting human and livestock food crops or animal pastureland.  It’s a stunning assertion.

Mapped Grass Biofuel Production Areas. Click image for the largst view.

To date there has been relatively little research on land availability, one of the basic issues of expanding biofuel development. One particular interest is whether the world could even produce enough biofuel to meet fuel demand at worthwhile volumes without compromising food production.  So far the noteworthy studies for biofuel crop viability focus on biomass yield, or how productive a crop can be regionally.

Cai sums the central point up, “The questions we’re trying to address are, what kind of land could be used for biofuel crops? If we have land, where is it, and what is the current land cover?”

The UI team assessed land availability from a physical perspective using the hard agronomic data – focusing on soil properties, soil quality, land slope, and regional climate. The researchers collected data on soil, topography, climate and current land use from some of the best data sources available, including remote sensing maps.

With the food vs. fuel debate raging, a prime point was adopted for the study, that only marginal land would be considered for biofuel crops. Marginal land refers to land with low inherent productivity, that has been abandoned or degraded, or is of low quality for agricultural food crop uses. In focusing on marginal land, the researchers rule out current cropland, pasture land, and forests. They also assume that any biofuel crops would be watered by rainfall and not irrigation, so no water would have to be diverted from agricultural land.

The study relies on using fuzzy logic modeling, a technique to address uncertainty and ambiguity in analysis, the researchers considered multiple scenarios for land availability. The paper and supporting documentation offer others a means to retry and modify the assumptions for other scenarios and test the team’s results.  Those too will be interesting efforts that might offer extended guides for the future.

To start the UI team considered only idle land and vegetation land with marginal productivity; for the second scenario, they added degraded or low-quality cropland. For the second scenario, they estimated 702 million hectares of land available for second-generation biofuel crops, such as switchgrass or miscanthus.

Then the team expanded their sights to marginal grassland. A class of biofuel crops called low-impact high-diversity (LIHD) perennial grasses could produce bioenergy while maintaining grassland. Adding LIHD crops grown on marginal grassland to the marginal cropland estimate from earlier scenarios increased 57% the estimated land area to 1,107 million to perhaps as much as 1,411 million hectares globally, even after subtracting possible pastureland.

While they have a lower ethanol yield than grasses such as miscanthus or switchgrass, LIHD grasses have minimal environmental impact and are similar to grassland’s natural land cover.  It seems that the team has the non-crop, pasture and forest of the planet covered.

The total area is calculated to produce 26 to 56 percent of the world’s current liquid fuel consumption.  The 1,107 million hectares converts to about 4.275 million square miles or a bit over 11 million square kilometers.  As the map above shows, it’s a world encompassing economic opportunity.

The UI team plans to go further with plans to study the possible effect of climate change on land use and availability.  “Based on the historical data, we now have an estimation for current land use, but climate may change in the near future as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, which will have effect on the land availability,” said graduate student Xiao Zhang, a co-author of the paper.  Also of note Dingbao Wang a former post doctoral fellow, now at the University of Central Florida also co-wrote the paper.

Cai and Zhang. Click image for more information.

Cai closes up the press release with, “We hope this will provide a physical basis for future research. For example, agricultural economists could use the dataset to do some research with the impact of institutions, community acceptance and so on, or some impact on the market. We want to provide a start so others can use our research data.”

Its safe to say the data will get used.  The opportunity to relieve poverty and move large populations to productive, world market products alone is of great moral as well as commercial value.

On the other hand the press release term of about half of the world’s current “liquid fuel consumption” isn’t nailed own.  Plus the variable between 26% and 56% is large.  But the agronomic skill set, the crop management skills, and the genetic plant design abilities haven’t been rolled in as well.  Those technologies could change the numbers significantly and prompt areas to move commercially much sooner than anyone might expect.

The catch is the market has to like ethanol and other biomass fuels and be willing to change.

We are just getting started on the alternatives to petroleum products.  Its going to take decades, but worrying about peaks and such seems to be a waste of human capital.  If, or more likely when, more efficient fuel to energy conversion arrives at advantageous cost, the energy crises will be destined to be history.


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