Reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council Newsletter, February 2012
The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, along with the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) and the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) have invested more than $450,000 in research around new technology to improve ethanol’s net energy balance and enhance the profitability and viability of ethanol plants.
Research in NRRI’s Chemical Extractives Laboratory is focused on developing waste-stream products into value-added, market-ready products.
Algae represent a potential opportunity to address future demands by society as a source of food, energy and unique bioproducts. Based on the rates of growth, simple culturing strategies and the ability to grow algae on lands not suitable for conventional agriculture, algae have the potential to produce significant quantities of biomass to meet rising demands for energy and fuels by our growing populations without competing with our current essential food crops.
Long before the development of modern agricultural techniques and widespread utilization of industrially produced fertilizers, farmers knew that planting or rotating specific crops such as soybeans, alfalfa and clover was beneficial for their soils, providing required nutrients to the soil to grow other crops in alternating years. Similar to what is found in conventional agriculture with soybeans or clover, the growth of specific bacteria and other associated microorganisms is known to provide benefits to algae by contributing essential nutrients such as vitamins that are necessary for enhanced growth of the algae. While certain agricultural crops are known to grow symbiotically, in a manner that is mutually beneficial for both the plant and the bacterium, the understanding of beneficial relationships between algae and bacteria is not as well understood.
Barney’s project aims to study these beneficial relationships in greater detail both in targeted relationships between known algae and bacterial species and also in natural systems where different species are less well defined, and should contribute to future efforts to develop strategies to grow algae in mass culture and provide a new source of both food and fuel for future generations.
Can a single biofuel production system reduce water and nutrient runoff from farm fields, cut down on soil erosion, and turn a profit for the farmers who grow it? University of Minnesota scientists and Extension Master Gardeners are exploring this possibility as part of a new, five-year, $25 million multistate grant. Funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and led by Iowa State University, research is focused on harvesting perennial grasses—mostly native species such as bluestem and switchgrass—and using the biomass as a feedstock for a biofuel process known as pyrolysis. Research efforts are considering the use of biochar, a nutrient-rich solid and co-product of the pyrolysis process, as a soil amendment.
Interdisciplinary research teams from eight states will explore the best ways to grow, harvest, transport and distribute the biomass and biofuel. University of Minnesota scientists from Extension and the departments of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, horticultural science, soil, water and climate, and applied economics will take part.
“What is so exciting about this project is that it has the potential to improve soil fertility of large agricultural fields as well as small gardens,” said Jason Hill, assistant professor in the department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering and one of the project’s lead investigators. “Our success in receiving this grant is in large part thanks to IREE, which funded our initial work in this area.”