CenUSA Bioenergy in 2015*
CenUSA Bioenergy is an ambitious, University based, USDA sponsored research project investigating the sustainable production and distribution of bioenergy and bioproducts for the central United States. With funding from USDA NIFA, the project includes researchers from Iowa State University, Purdue University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, The University of Vermont, and USDA ARS.
The vision is to create a Midwestern regional system for producing advanced transportation fuels and bioproducts derived from perennial grasses grown on land that is either unsuitable or marginal for row crop production. In addition to producing advanced biofuels and bioproducts, the proposed system will improve the sustainability of existing cropping systems by reducing agricultural runoff of nutrients and soil and increasing carbon sequestration.
Based on this vision, research efforts are concentrated on ten objectives:
- Developing cultivars and hybrids of perennial grasses optimized for bioenergy production.
- Developing sustainable production systems that optimize perennial biomass yields and ecosystem services.
- Developing flexible, efficient, and sustainable logistics systems.
- Identifying and characterizing sustainable bioenergy systems to achieve social, economic, and environmental goals and understand socioeconomic and environmental consequences of perennial bioenergy systems.
- Identifying germplasm characteristics amenable to pyrolytic conversion and evaluating performance of pyrolytic biofuels.
- Evaluating policy, market, and contract mechanisms to facilitate broad adoption by farmers.
- Developing procedures for managing risks and protecting health for each component of the biofuel production chain.
- Providing interdisciplinary education and engagement opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.
- Developing outreach programs for all stakeholders within the bioenergy system.
- Commercializing perennial grasses.
Initial projects focus specifically on breeding new and improved cultivars for use on marginal cropland that can also survive Iowa winters. Concerns with growing switchgrass include issues such as establishing a stand, weed control, successfully harvesting a crop, and storage. In on-farm trials, some of the advantages for producers included control of erosion and weeds, productivity on marginal land, and long-term ground cover.
Post-harvest, CenUSA is looking closer at feedstock conversion and refining, market development, and the differences from current agricultural process that might cause additional health or safety concerns if not properly understood.
With multiple years of production information, more details on production economics is available from CenUSA, including a Decision Tool showing estimated costs of production.
If we know how to grow it, harvest it, and store it, then what is the next step? Why would a producer consider a multi-year crop if they don’t see significant profit upfront? Evaluations of growers found there is value in "non-priced" benefits, especially on highly erodible land that might not be well suited for row crop production.
The greatest challenge is developing a market. Producer feedback shows interest in growing perennial grasses; but producers won’t commit until there is a market for their grasses. It’s a catch-22, as markets won’t develop until there is enough product to support them. Uncertainty around biofuels policy in the United States is creating a vacuum for investment in second generation bioprocessing in the United States - so markets for perennial grasses for biofuels have yet to develop. Other niche or commercial markets are possibilities. CenUSA has done beef feeding trials at the ISU Armstrong research farm that show switchgrass can be substituted for hay or corn stover in a beef feedlot ration - replacing the “scratch” portion of the beef ration - with good results. Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) and Renmatix have partnered with CenUSA in looking at the commercialization aspect for industrial sugars within each objective. NewBio, a "sister" project to CenUSA also looks at alternative markets for grass energy crops.
Policy changes on the horizon may create opportunities for the CenUSA vision. For instance, Minnesota passed a buffer/riparian strip law this last legislative session that requires buffers along all streams and rivers. Bioenergy grasses would be excellent candidates for the buffers. Adoption of biofuel crops will affect other markets. Further research will evaluate the impact of an expanded advanced biofuel system on regional and global food, feed, energy and fiber markets.
How to learn more
Details on current projects, newsletters, and further education can be found on the CenUSA website. Blades, a bi-monthly newsletter highlighting various aspects of this large project, is also available to stay informed on the latest research being done as a part of CenUSA. To learn more about the CenUSA vision, read the article "Midwest vision for sustainable fuel production" in the journal Biofuels.
* This project is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2011-68005-30411 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (RGB 106/128/18).
Jill Euken, program director, Bioeconomy Institute [BEI], 515-294-6286, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sorrel Brown, extension program evaluator, 515-294-8802, email@example.com
Ann M. Johanns, extension program specialist, 641-732-5574, firstname.lastname@example.org