Monday, November 7, 2011

Master Gardeners part of team to analyze biofuel production, land use

Can a single, biofuel production system 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, 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 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, University of Wisconsin, 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

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