Willow as bioenergy crop gets closer in NY State

August 05, 2012
August 5, 2012, Ithaca, NY - The commercialization of shrub willow as a bioenergy crop could be years closer, thanks to a $1.37 million grant that will allow Cornell University researchers to take advantage of the newly mapped shrub willow genome.
Larry Smart, associate professor of horticulture, has partnered with Christopher D. Town, professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., to study the genetics of superior growth in hybrids of shrub willow, a fast-growing, perennial cool-climate woody plant.

"Determining the precise genetic mechanisms that produce hybrid vigor has been a scientific challenge for a century," said Smart.

Unlocking those mechanisms and then developing simple techniques for finding the genetic fingerprint for hybrid vigor in parent species could cut the time it takes to identify promising progeny, Smart said. And time is money; for farmers to adopt a new crop like shrub willow -- and for companies to accept the end product -- they need assurance of long-term profitability before taking on the associated higher risk.

"We think the results of this research will take years off the cycle time needed to find the best growing shrub willow hybrids and with consistent increases in yield each cycle, we will rapidly advance commercialization of this emerging bioenergy crop," Smart said.

The grant is part of a $41 million investment by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in research to improve efficiency and innovation in biofuel production and feedstocks. It is the first project to take advantage of the recently mapped shrub willow genome, the product of a three-year DOE-funded endeavor by Smart's lab, JCVI and several DOE national labs.

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets estimates there are more than 1 million acres of poorly drained and otherwise underutilized land in New York alone. Using this land to grow shrub willow could create a new regional cash crop. Unlike corn or sugarcane, shrub willow does not need the more fertile soil used for the production of fruit, vegetables or livestock feed. It also needs less fertilizer and other inputs to thrive.

"Willow represents an important bioenergy crop for the northeastern part of the U.S., and the hybrids that are being developed by Cornell have the potential to provide higher yields of more suitable biomass and with more efficient use of resources such as water," Town said.

Improving shrub willow yields on marginal land is the main goal for Smart's willow breeding program, which began in 1998. Smart also participates in projects to demonstrate its use and value to farmers, biofuels companies, small businesses and municipalities. This includes the installation of a new boiler to heat two buildings at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station with willow biofuel produced on its Geneva campus.

"We're at a key juncture in New York, where we're deciding whether or not to extract more fossil fuels locally. At the same time, we need to explore renewable energy options that will stimulate the local economy and not contribute to global climate change," Smart said.

Add comment


Security code
Refresh

Subscription Centre

 
New Subscription
 
Already a Subscriber
 
Customer Service
 
View Digital Magazine Renew

Most Popular

We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy.