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Nebraska is known for its rolling cornfields in America’s heartland, and agriculture is so thick in the state that people there can smell the fresh produce in the air. Many more in the U.S. might end up tasting the hearty vegetables as well. But one concern about new technologies that use crops for fuel is that those crops, and the land on which they’re grown, isn’t being used for food.
Researchers such as Gayathri Gopalakrishnan are searching for ways to change how American farmers and consumers think about biofuels, though. Her team seeks to turn once-ignored marginal land — places considered to have inadequate soil quality for producing crops — and contaminated water into useful resources. She believes American farmers might soon grow non-food crops for fuel using those resources. If researchers succeed, it could also help to conserve clean water supplies without competing with farmland used to grow food.
Gayathri, an environmental engineer at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, knows scientists will have to work across disciplines to find solutions.
“People focus on one system — only crops, only fuel, only environmental problems — in a world where they’re actually tightly intertwined,” she says. “If you put them all together, problems in one sector can become resources for another.”
Gayathri co-authored a recent study called “Biofuels, Land and Water: A Systems Approach to Sustainability.” Along with her fellow Argonne researchers, she focused their research on Nebraska, a key biomass-producing state. The study considered agriculture, energy and the environment as a single system instead of separate entities.
The researchers mapped out marginal land they believe could be used to grow biomass for fuel, including some areas that only act as buffers around roads. Utilizing these sites for biofuel production could meet up to 22 percent of Nebraska’s energy requirements, according to the study, which is 11 times the energy the state currently produces from biomass.
Her earlier research in phytoremediation, a process that uses plants to draw harmful pollutants from the soil, is what stimulated Gayathri’s interest in biomass, she says.
“My colleague and I have worked to clean up chemicals with plants, and some of the plants made good biomass crops too,” she says. “The ideas seemed to fit together, so growing plants that can clean up chemicals and then be used for biomass makes sense.”
Gayathri’s team identified areas in Nebraska where nitrate-contaminated groundwater and wastewater could be used to grow crops that can be converted into biofuels. The researchers found a 96-percent overlap between marginal land and contaminated water, meaning there is high potential for sustainable production of non-food biofuel crops known as feedstocks in those areas.
“I think there is definitely a lot of potential for using this approach, both to benefit the environment and from the economics of the biomass perspective,” Gayathri says. “We are hoping to expand the field testing to look at other states.”
The approach could obviously yield economic benefits in addition to the environmental ones, so using feedstocks to restore degraded land and water resources and to produce a transportation fuel is a win-win situation, she says. Farmers can use water impaired as a result of farm operations to beneficially reuse nutrients, saving the environment and money.
“We get renewable energy at a lower cost, clean water, increased biodiversity and an improved rural economy,” she says.
The Argonne study was sponsored by the Biomass Program within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.