Fueling the future

The Center for Agroforestry helps a biobased economy take root in the Midwest

Students learn about potential Missouri biofuels at a demonstration plot at Bradford Research Center.

Flying over the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the cottonwoods, willows and switchgrass you might glimpse could soon power the jet engines propelling you through the air. Shibu Jose, director of MU’s Center for Agroforestry, envisions a 10-state biomass corridor that could fuel economic growth, power vehicles and jet planes and provide valuable ecosystem services throughout the region.

The Mississippi/Missouri River Advanced Biomass/Biofuel Consortium (MRABC) held its inaugural meeting January 11 during the Third Annual Agroforestry Symposium on MU’s campus.

Presenters covered a variety of topics related to bioenergy from green nanoparticles and biocatalyst enzymes to developing a biobased regional economy.  Stakeholders, including land owners, fuel refiners, and conservationists, met after the symposium to strategize how to advance a biobased economy in the heartland of the U.S.

“Our nation has a goal to use 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022,” Jose said. “We can produce about 15 billion gallons from ethanol, but the rest has to come from cellulosic or advanced biofuels. It’s clear based on our national policy that we need to produce the biomass to produce the biofuel.” Jose’s innovative vision was recently featured in Mizzou Magazine, as part of their cover story on sustainable energy.

Benefits of Biomass

Upland Agroforestry buffer (oak trees and grass) on a corn-soybean rotation watershed at the Greenley Research Center, near Novelty, Mo.

MU researchers, including Ranjith Udawatta, research associate professor in CAFNR’s Soils, Environment and Atmospheric Sciences department, have documented improved soil quality and reduced nutrient and sediment runoff from agroforestry and grassland buffers in row-crop systems at Greenley Research Center near Novelty, and in grazed pasture at the Horticultural and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC) in New Franklin.

The results bolster the biomass corridor concept, which includes a combination of perennial grasses, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, cottonwood and willow trees, sweet sorghum and energy cane.

Such biofuel plants have powerful potential attributes. Switchgrass and miscanthus can be harvested every year for 15-20 years before replanting and cottonwood and willow trees can reach 20 feet in just three years. That means sensitive lands like floodplains don’t have to be disturbed each year for planting, which loosens the soil and can lead to sediment flowing downriver.

An H-Flume at one of three watersheds at Greenley Research Center to measure flow and collect water samples to determine sediment, nutrient and herbicide losses.

Most of the biomass crops are flood and drought tolerant, nutrient absorbent and have a capacity for carbon sequestration much higher than row crops, Jose said.  “Where you establish the biomass crops it makes an important difference,” he added. “You might only set aside 10 percent of the land for biomass but get 100 percent of the environmental benefit.”

Farmers can grow biomass on marginal land that is subject to frequent flooding, and rather than risking losing their crop, they’re gaining another source of revenue, improving water and soil quality, creating wildlife habitat and helping foster a regional, sustainable fuel economy.

Jose imagines regional biorefineries for processing biomass into pellets, which could then be shipped to large-scale commercial refineries across the Midwest. The whole system — growing, harvesting, shipping and processing — could generate more than a billion dollars annually along the rivers and create thousands of new jobs.

“In the past we used to do all of these things for the sake of conservation, now we are also telling land owners you can still get that conservation benefit with a crop you can sell; it’s a market-based approach to conservation,” Jose said.