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Does growing biofuel turn a profit?

Nov. 8, 2011, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN - Can biofuel reduce water and nutrient runoff from farm fields, cut down on soil erosion and turn a profit for the farmers who grow it?


November 8, 2011
By David Manly


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Nov. 8, 2011, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN – Can biofuel reduce water and nutrient
runoff from farm fields, cut down on soil erosion and turn a profit for
the farmers who grow it?

University of Minnesota scientists and
Extension Master Gardeners will explore this possibility as part of a
new, five-year, $25 million multistate grant.

Funded by the USDA’s
National Institute of Food and Agriculture, nationwide research will
focus on harvesting perennial grasses—mostly native species such as
bluestem and switchgrass—and using the biomass as a feedstock for a
biofuel process known as pyrolysis. Interdisciplinary research teams
from eight states will explore the best ways to grow, harvest, transport
and distribute the biomass and biofuel.

In Minnesota, research
efforts will center on the use of biochar, a nutrient-rich solid and
co-product of the pyrolysis process, as a soil amendment. To help
determine biochar’s viability as a commercial product for home
gardeners, Master Gardeners will test its ability to increase
productivity in vegetable and flower gardens. They will design, plant,
maintain and collect data from research plots at three Minnesota sites:
the St. Paul Campus Display Garden, the Rosemount Research and Outreach
Center, and the Landscape Arboretum. In addition, Master Gardeners will
share preliminary findings and results at horticulture days, open
houses, field days and other public events statewide.

“The unique
part is that Master Gardeners get to work on cutting-edge bioenergy
research and bring those results out to the people of Minnesota,” said
Julie Weisenhorn, Master Gardener program state director.

U of M
scientists from Extension and the departments of bioproducts and
biosystems engineering; horticultural science; soil, water and climate;
and applied economics will take part.

“What is so exciting about
this project is that it has the potential to improve soil fertility of
large agricultural fields as well as small gardens,” said Jason Hill,
assistant professor in the U's bioproducts and biosystems engineering
department and one of the project’s lead investigators.

The
feasibility of biochar as a new commercial product for home gardeners
may bode well for the future of clean energy options like bio-oil.
Pyrolysis decomposes biomass to produce both biochar and bio-oil, which
with additional refining can be turned into automobile fuels and
petrochemicals. So-called "green gasoline" derived from bio-oil is
considered a "drop-in fuel" that can be added directly to the U.S.
gasoline infrastructure and delivery system.

In addition to the
University of Minnesota, the five-year study involves researchers from
Iowa State University, Purdue University, the University of Wisconsin,
the University of Vermont, USDA research offices in Wisconsin,
Pennsylvania and Nebraska, and the Department of Energy’s Idaho National
Laboratory.

University of Minnesota Extension is a 100-year-old
partnership between the university and federal, state and county
governments to provide scientific knowledge and expertise to the public.
Through Extension, the University of Minnesota "extends" its resources
to address critical public issues in priority areas, including food and
agriculture, communities, environment, youth and families. For more
information, visit www.extension.umn.edu.


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