Latest development in renewable energy

Prairie grasses: This experimental plot contains four species of prairie plants. The nearby plots, going clockwise, contain eight species, four species, and 16 species. (Photo courtesy David Tilman, University of Minnesota)

Scientists at our very own U of M have made some exciting new discoveries about the prospect of using biofuels for energy! They found that planting a diverse mix of native prairie species is more efficient than corn or soybeans, even on degraded soil. Amazingly, their most diverse plots, with 18 different species, produced 238% more bioenergy than the plots with only 1 species.

While there is still a lot of research needed to make this system useable on a wide scale, these findings are encouraging for a few reasons. Unlike all of our other forms of fuel, including corn ethanol or biodiesel from soy beans, the native plants actually absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than is released when used for fuel. Because of the vast root network associated with prairie plants (which allow them to withstand Minnesota’s hot and dry summers), much carbon is stored below ground and is not harvested for fuel. Also, these environmentally friendly crops can be grown on land that is unusable for traditional food crops. They do not need to be fertilized, a benefit to growing a native species, and thus can be grown in nutrient poor areas. Fertilizer runoff from traditional agriculture is a big contributor to water quality problems. Additionally, because native prairie species are perennial crops, they can help prevent erosion. For much of the year, particularly during the rainy months in the spring, corn or soybean fields are bare. This leaves the ground vulnerable to soil loss. Planting a native mix, particularly on steep slopes or along riverbanks, which are less suitable to traditional crops anyway, could mitigate many environmental issues. Plus, we could increase the amount of prairie habitat for native wildlife!

For more information on sustainable agriculture and the latest research check out Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

Cool, Rebecca!

We did a story about David Tilman's research on diverse prairie grasses and stable ecosystems over the summer. (It was posted on the web and out in the Museum's Big Back Yard, near our Prairie Maze.) But we didn't cover the biofuels angle.

Want to know more about biofuels? Buzz has a lot of stories:

"Which biofuel is better?"

"Making fuel from trash"

"Hydrogen from soybeans"

Also, jump over to this month's Scientist on the Spot. Troy Goodnough, from the University of Minnesota-Morris, is answering questions about a new reactor that turns corn leftovers into a gas fuel to heat and cool campus buildings.

posted on Fri, 12/08/2006 - 10:47am
ARTiFactor's picture
ARTiFactor says:

University of Minnesota Regents Professor David Tilman gave the capnote address at the IREE research symposium last week. His topic was "Climate Change and the Future of Renewable Energy". The presentation is online (pdf slideshow).

The world population is projected have 3 or 4 billion additional mouths to feed in the next 50 years. Meeting this increased demand for food will will require an additional 2.5 billion acres of land. Biofuel production should be shifted to degraded land. These mixed prairie grasses are just what is needed.

posted on Fri, 12/08/2006 - 12:24pm
marc's picture
marc says:

So, what are we waiting for?

posted on Fri, 12/29/2006 - 4:51pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is very intresting! fun to see

posted on Thu, 01/18/2007 - 11:46am
McKenna's picture
McKenna says:

Do you enjoy this project? I enjoyed reading about it. Keep up the hard work!

posted on Fri, 03/09/2007 - 10:37am

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