One of the major issues facing those growing biofuel crops are finding suitable locations where they can be grown sustainably, avoiding competition with food crops for land resources. A new renewable energy research project being undertaken by Arizona State University researchers aims to address this problem.
The research project, funded through a nearly $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation through its Water Sustainability and Climate program, will work to identify locations across the United States where perennial biomass energy crops (e.g., miscanthus and switchgrass) could be grown. It is being approached from an interdisciplinary undertaking over five years, integrating what the university says are “physical, agricultural and economic elements embedded within a high-performance computing (HPC) framework” to achieve its tasks.
The project will look what’s termed sustainable “hot-spots,” or areas best-suited for expansion of perennial bioenergy crops.
The choice of perennial biomass energy crops versus a more traditional corn ethanol model focuses around avoiding common side effects of the latter, such as food security concerns owing to its use as a staple food crop. It is hoped the use of perennials will decrease reliance on the use of food crops for energy production, while at the same time significantly offsetting use of fossil fuels and combating greenhouse gas-induced climate change if said sustainable expansion can occur.
The ASU team, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, will focus their research efforts on abandoned and degraded farmland over the contiguous U.S., according to the university. These efforts will include hydro-climatic modeling activities aimed at revealing the most suitable hot-spots, quantifying perennial crop yield from the hot-spots to assess energy offset potential of U.S. consumption, evaluating economic potential for the production of perennial bioenergy crops in the U.S. in terms of long-run sustainability constraints for land and water and enhancing all economic and crop models in a computing environment to create a simulated modeling system that could demonstrate developments.
The university noted as well that by focusing on the long-term sustainability potential of these crops through the NSF backed project, it is initiating for itself a new avenue of renewable energy research.
“Through the transdisciplinary nature of our research, projects like these not only expand our renewable energy research capabilities, but provide new solutions that address global energy challenges,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president with the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development, in a statement. “This project advances our knowledge in the area of biomass research, while creating increased possibilities for greater economic impact.”