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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

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Energy farm tour reveals bioenergy crops’ sustainability

On a crisp fall day, students, faculty and staff learned about ongoing research projects at the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) Energy Farm as they walked among towering plots of prairie grasses and woody plants.

The farm tour was part of the Fourth Annual Sustainability Week, a weeklong celebration of the ongoing efforts by the University of Illinois to create a more sustainable campus and community.

Farm tours are a “fantastic way” for students to learn about the diversified research at Illinois, said Jenny Kokini, who helps run the Center for a Sustainable Environment that hosted the event.

“The students who toured the Sustainable Student Farm and EBI Energy Farm get to see firsthand what it takes to conduct bioenergy research that will help improve how we produce food and fuel sustainably,” she said. “Illinois faculty and staff are out here working and collecting vital data on rainy spring days, scorching summer days, and even cool, windy fall days like this one.”

Native bioenergy grasses could provide sustainable fuel while benefiting Illinois conservation by creating a habitat for animals and preventing soil erosion, said DoKyoung (D.K.) Lee, an Assistant Professor of Crop Sciences and EBI faculty member, who began the tour.

“We have a lot of different landscapes in Illinois, including hilly, flat, and wet areas,” Lee said. “Not all ground is perfect for row crop production. We would like to use this marginal land to produce biomass.”

Lee said native grasses like prairie cordgrass are good for cold, wet and salty areas whereas big bluestem is good for dry, hilly areas.

Next, participants saw black locust trees, the most productive woody plant out of 21 species in a study by Gary Kling, an Associate Professor of Crop Sciences and EBI faculty member. Kling discussed how woody plants could be an alternative feedstock that can live for decades, provide a habitat for many animals, and be stored for long periods of time after harvest.

Tom Voigt, an Associate Professor of Crop Sciences and EBI faculty member, showed participants a plot of Miscanthus, the highest-yielding grass for temperate areas like Illinois. This perennial bioenergy grass doesn’t use traditional fertilizers and produces 8-9 tons of dry matter per acre, whereas fertilized corn only produces about 1-2 tons of dry matter per acre and is often needed to replenish the organic matter in the soil.

EBI postdoctoral associates Ilsa Kantola and Candice Smith discussed how long term bioenergy grass crop and traditional row crop production will impact Illinois soil, particularly carbon and nitrogen storage. Smith has found that perennial bioenergy plants leach very little nitrogen, which is important to preventing nitrogen from traveling to the Gulf of Mexico and creating large, hypoxic “dead zones” that are virtually void of life.

“The perennial crops are really great for holding onto their nitrogen and not allowing it to leach out,” Smith said. “They also do really well in not omitting nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

Participants also toured a 20-foot research greenhouse and the university’s 2007 Solar Decathlon “Element House,” which will be renovated and placed at a permanent site on the farm.

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The Center for a Sustainable Environment provides national and international leadership on sustainability by providing support for interdisciplinary education, research, and engagement in addition to developing and implementing strategies for a sustainable campus environment.

The Energy Biosciences Institute, supported by a $500-million, 10-year award from energy company BP, pursues solutions to the global energy challenge through collaborative research between the University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The EBI’s efforts at Illinois take place at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), an interdisciplinary research institute.

Home page photo coutesy of  Katie Kinley.

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