US – University of Illinois associate professor and Extension specialist Tom Voigt says that he feels “fortunate and happy” to be involved in EBI’s research activities that include bioenergy and traditional Midwest crops, but it’s collaboration that makes the difference.
“One of the main studies we have out there uses replicated plots of Miscanthus x giganteus, switchgrass, a recreated tall grass prairie, and a corn-corn-soybean rotation, ” he said. “We have five replications of each of those plots. We are comparing yields of those plants, we’re looking at the crop development from initial planting to maturity and how the yields change, how the crops change, and how the populations may change over time.”
Other EBI groups are looking at different questions related to these crops. Ag engineers under the direction of professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering K.C. Ting have a large presence at the Energy Farm. They are working with different methods of harvesting, storing, and transporting the crop, using systems approaches to find the most efficient method of getting a crop to the processing facility.
Mike Gray runs the pest program. He and plant pathologist Carl Bradley are identifying the pests and pathogens that could pose significant threats to biofuel feedstock.
Evan Delucias’s environmental group studies nitrogen and carbon cycling and looks at the balances of these two elements. They are trying to identify all the nitrogen inputs and outputs for biomass feedstocks by monitoring nitrous oxide gases being emitted by the different cropping systems. With other researchers, they are looking at carbon dioxide movement within the canopy and above the canopy.
Perennial grasses are not the only potential feedstocks of interest. There is also ongoing research on woody plants and on forbs, which are broadleaf, herbaceous crops and include late goldenrod, cup plant, giant ironweed, and the sun-tooth sunflower. Associate professor of crop sciences Gary Kling is leading the forb research in collaboration with Voigt and crop sciences assistant professor D.K. Lee.
Voigt says that one of the more interesting projects is work with Virginia fanpetal. Several years ago, a researcher on the east coast called him about the plant.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. When the researcher told him that the plant, which is native to the United States, was being grown as an energy crop in Poland and Russia, he was intrigued.
“So I got on the Internet and started digging around,” he said. He found information about companies in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe that are growing it, and other companies that are promoting it, as an energy crop.
“One of our colleagues at EBI found some seed, and we started growing it and it may have some potential,” he said.
They have gone from small-block plantings and are now looking at the how planting density affects the yield. The seed is not commercially available, so they have harvested their own and will be doing additional agronomic work on issues such as fertilizing and weed control.
In addition to their work in Urbana, researchers with the various projects are involved in collaborations that go well beyond the boundaries of the Energy Farm or the University of Illonois. A Department of Energy-funded project involves identical plantings at the University of Nebraska, the University of Kentucky, Rutgers University, and Virginia Tech. An EBI M. x giganteus and switchgrass project involves collaborators in South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Kentucky.
Outreach is also becoming increasingly important.
“We’ve had people from all over the world tour the Energy Farm,” said Voigt.
“Last year, we had 200 Argentinian farmers tour the farm on a Saturday morning. They were here for the Farm Progress show in Decatur that was held earlier in the week, and they made the Energy Farm one of their tour stops.”
Voigt says that he’s happy to be doing research that could lead to producing some energy domestically.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll be driving a car with gas as at least as part of the energy source until I’m done driving,” he said. “But future generations may not have that luxury.”
Tom Voigt is a specialist in turf, landscape, and biomass grasses and is the principal investigator for EBI’s Feedstock Production/Agronomy Program at the Energy Farm.
TheBioenergySite News Desk