This summer's drought has "stirred the pot" in the fuel vs. food debate, but researchers at the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry are collaborating with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to study how second generation biofuels—those from non-fuel crops grown on marginal land—could become profitable and sustainable.
Despite finite supplies of fossil fuels, Shibu Jose, director of the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri and H.E. Garrett Endowed Professor at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources says creating a vibrant biofuel industry is a "chicken-or-the-egg" problem.
Farmers don't want to invest in these biofuel crops until they know there will be buyers willing to pay a good price for them, he says. "And industrial players like refineries and producers of advanced liquid fuels would like to see sustainable production of biomass crops before they set up shop, which would take millions of dollars of investment."
To find solutions to both cropping and processing issues, MU researchers are testing four species of biofuel crops in land that is not or can't be used for other production. In the flood-prone fields along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the crops are grown in huge trenches that will be flooded to simulate conditions.
The fields include 15 different varieties of each of the four candidate crops: willow, switchgrass, cottonwood and high-biomass sorghum. The researchers will compare how well they grow in different types of soil and under different amounts and duration of flood stress.
The results will reveal which varieties are likely to perform best in the floodplains. This knowledge will guide breeding programs to create new, improved varieties of biomass crops.