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Marginal Lands are Prime Fuel Source

21 January 2013
Michigan State University

US - Marginal lands ­– those unsuited for food crops – can serve as prime real estate for meeting the nation’s alternative energy production goals.

In the current issue of Nature, a team of researchers led by Michigan State University (MSU) shows that marginal lands represent a huge untapped resource to grow mixed species cellulosic biomass, plants grown specifically for fuel production, which could annually produce up to 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol in the Midwest alone.

"Understanding the environmental impact of widespread biofuel production is a major unanswered question both in the US and worldwide," said Ilya Gelfand, lead author and MSU postdoctoral researcher.

“We estimate that using marginal lands for growing cellulosic biomass crops could provide up to 215 gallons of ethanol per acre with substantial greenhouse gas mitigation.” Focusing on 10 Midwest states, Great Lakes Bioenergy researchers from MSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory used 20 years of data from MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station LTER Site to characterise the comparative productivity and greenhouse gas impacts of different crops, including corn, poplar, alfalfa and old field vegetation.

They then used a supercomputer to identify and model biomass production that could grow enough feedstock to support a local biorefinery with a capacity of at least 24 million gallons per year.

The final tally of 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol represents about 25 per cent of Congress’ 2022 cellulosic biofuels target, said Phil Robertson, co-author and MSU professor of crop, soil and microbial sciences.

“The value of marginal land for energy production has been long-speculated and often discounted,” he said. “This study shows that these lands could make a major contribution to transportation energy needs while providing substantial climate and – if managed properly – conservation benefits.”

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