US Biofuel Cropland Mapped For Lower Impact

Scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) are helping in the quest to bring biofuels to U.S. soil.

The scientists have come up with a new method for mapping grasslands that they say will make it easier to identify if an area is suitable for growing crops that could be processed to make the fuel.

doe-biofuels

image via DOE

They have already trialled their method in Nebraska where they used remote sensing data from satellites to survey the Greater Platte River Basin, which covers most of the state and parts of adjacent states.

From the data collected they were able to see which parts were best suited to switchgrass, a native plant that grows wild or is easily cultivated.

Biofuel is derived from the cell walls of the switchgrass. This cellulosic-based production of biofuel uses the inedible structural material of organic sources as diverse as grasses (commonly switchgrass and miscanthus), woody biomass, and agricultural and municipal wastes.

Many environmentalists favor a switch to cellulosic-based fuel because it is seen as less harmful to the land than ethanol produced from corn, currently the most common biofuel product in the U.S. The negative consequences of corn-based biofuel are soil erosion, water quality impairment because of heavy use of pesticides and fertilizer, and demand for irrigation water.

According to the USGS scientists deep-rooted switchgrass, which grows in the prairie, helps limit soil erosion and can be grown on more marginal types of land such as areas with sandy and gravel-filled soils that typically produce low yields of conventional farm crops.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.