July 7, 2015

Scientists study ways to integrate biofuels and food crops on farms

(July 7, 2015)  We ask a lot of the land: feed the world with crops, power the world with bioenergy, retain nutrients so they don’t pollute our water and air. To help landscapes answer these high demands, scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are designing ways to improve—and hopefully optimize—land use.

In collaboration with the farming community of the Indian Creek Watershed in central Illinois, these researchers are finding ways to simultaneously meet three objectives: maximize a farmer’s production, grow feedstock for bioenergy and protect the environment. These goals, as it turns out, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

All it takes is a multifunctional landscape, where resources are allocated efficiently and crops are situated in their ideal soil and landscape position. Planting bioenergy crops like willows or switchgrass in rows where commodity crops are having difficulty growing could both provide biomass feedstock and also limit the runoff of nitrogen fertilizer into waterways — all without hurting a farmer’s profits. This is what a group of Argonne scientists has discovered through careful data collection and modeling at a cornfield in Fairbury.

“The issue we’re working to address is how to design bioenergy systems that are sustainable” said Cristina Negri, principal agronomist and environmental engineer at Argonne. “It’s not idealistic. We wanted to show that it’s doable; if we design for specific outcomes, we’ll see real results.”

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