Watching Grass Grow Becomes Critical in Hunt For New Biofuels
Watching grass grow is not normally the most exciting activity -- unless the future of New York's energy needs, rural economic development and reducing the human contribution to global climate change depend on it.
From the lab to the field, Cornell researchers are analyzing every aspect of some field grasses in a multidisciplinary, high-octane search for the next generation of biofuels from such cellulose feedstocks as grasses and willow trees, which can be converted to ethanol and other products.
Nationally, corn is the leading source of biofuel, but in the long run, researchers say, New York will be better off developing alternative renewable sources of cellulosic ethanol that will be healthier for the environment, address energy needs and potentially create new business for rural farmers and landowners.
In the past few years, Cornell researchers have planted trial plots of field grasses -- cellulosic ethanol feedstocks -- in six sites across the state. Along with dozens of other renewable-energy research projects at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, the grass trials hold an important key to the future of New York's energy strategy for the 21st century.
New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's new energy initiative calls for the state to obtain 25 percent of its energy needs from renewable resources, including biofuels, by 2013. Rising concern about global climate change is also pushing the biofuels train as a renewable "clean" energy source that could reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
If all goes well, the grass trials, funded by the federal government through the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, with additional support from the New York Farm Viability Institute and the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, will provide development tools to create a viable industry. The ultimate goal of Cornell biofuels research is to discover the best sustainable bioenergy crops for diverse bioregions and provide businesses and entrepreneurs with new technologies and systems to convert grasses, wood and other biomass to usable, renewable energy with minimal environmental impact.
"Because New York contains and is near other major population centers and has a large amount of agricultural land that could be used for producing feedstocks, it is uniquely situated to be a major player in the biofuels industry," says Donald Viands, Cornell professor of plant breeding and genetics and a lead principal investigator on the project. Cornell, with scientists from multiple disciplines, is partnering with others to provide cutting-edge research and extension activities necessary "to realize the potential of biofuels in a safe and sustainable manner," says Viands.
Interest in biofuels is so high that at a recent demonstration of grass trials at an experiment site in Big Flats in Chemung County, more than 100 people, including farmers, policy-makers and researchers, showed up on a 100-degree day for a tour of fields of big bluestem, switchgrass, coastal panic grass and other species grown in partnership with Cornell researchers.
Adding urgency to the so-called "green energy revolution" is the fact that 90 percent of New York energy needs are currently met by imported oil and natural gas, which is higher than the national average, says Joseph Laquatra, professor of design and environmental analysis. To reduce its vulnerability to high oil prices and potential supply disruptions, the state needs to develop more indigenous sources of energy.
In the long term, cellulosic ethanol and other forms of bioenergy from grasses, legumes and wood products are expected to play a significant role in energy supplies, especially in New York, where some portion of 1.5 million acres of idle and underused agricultural lands could be turned into fuel-generating crops.
Lauren Chambliss is a communications specialist with the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca.