From: Cornell Chronicle
Published December 31, 2007 10:34 AM

Symposium looks at developing biofuel research

Global warming, oil's role in national security and bolstering rural economies are all pressing issues in the United States today. A potentially important consideration in addressing these issues? Bioenergy and biofuels, according to Cornell experts who reviewed research into developing biofuel technologies at a Dec. 14 Cornell symposium.

Sponsored and hosted by the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI), the symposium sought to address "cost-effective environmentally responsible solutions for meeting energy demands," said Tom Brutnell, associate scientist at BTI and Cornell adjunct professor of plant biology and of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, one of the eight presenters.

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This goal is important to keep in mind given recent mandates and predictions, said Jocelyn Rose, Cornell professor of plant biology.

"Virtually all the ethanol that is made today comes from starch. Everyone is very aware now that in order to accommodate the massive demands and changes in what we need to generate, there will be a transition to new forms and new sources of crops," Rose said.

Much of the research presented at the symposium dealt with ways to increase the yield of the crops used to make biofuels. Researchers spoke about their efforts, which ranged from optimizing the output of a particular crop through selective breeding, to diversifying the types of crops being used as biofuels, to expanding the amount of land used to grow the crops.

"If we're serious about biofuels, we want to increase the production on the land where we're growing crops," said Peter Woodbury, a research associate in Cornell's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

While corn is a common source of biofuels, there are many alternatives, the researchers pointed out. A variety of crops, such as switchgrass and other perennial grasses, are also viable options in the climates found in the United States. Another crop, sorghum, also has a "strong history" of being grown across New York, said Seth Murray, a graduate student in the Institute for Genomic Diversity at Cornell. He noted that sorghum has an impressive biomass yield.

Sustainability was another concern frequently revisited throughout the event. Although biofuels are often praised as a potential solution for global warming, they could have negative impacts, the researchers warned.

Woodbury pointed out, for example, that agriculture has already caused erosion and diminished surface-water quality. There are concerns that the nitrogen-rich fertilizer needed for the crops will further worsen water quality and that transporting the crops and biofuels also will have a negative environmental impact.

"We have to make sure that this is a true sustainability, and we don't just start burning more and more tropical rainforests in favor of making biofuels, because then the whole budget will not be carbon dioxide neutral," said Wolf Frommer of the Carnegie Institute of Science.

Fortunately, these concerns spread beyond academia, noted several researchers. Big businesses in the energy sector are "very much aware that if they don't have public opinion and media perception behind them ” it's going to be extremely risky and very damaging for them," Rose said. "The industry is very much aware of sustainability, and I believe this is more than lip service."

The symposium was the first of a series of talks on biofuels and bioenergy that will take place throughout the next year at BTI.

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