Michigan farmers as biomass crop producers

The alternative energy industry is demanding more feedstocks to replace fossil fuels. Michigan farmers will be an important part of the feedstock supply chain.

Plant biomass – all aboveground plant material that is not grain – is widely considered a promising replacement for petroleum-based transportation fuels, plastics, composite materials, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. Biomass can also be burned to generate heat and electricity. Federal mandates for ethanol made from biomass ratchet up to 16 billion gallons by 2022. This will create demand for large amounts of biomass, challenging farmers to supply crops for food and fuel production. The conversion of plant biomass to liquid fuel (cellulosic ethanol) is similar to the process of converting corn grain to ethanol with an additional first step of converting the cellulose in the biomass to sugars. This additional step requires new technology to make cellulosic ethanol financially competitive with corn grain ethanol and petroleum.

A careful evaluation of the potential dedicated biomass crops, sometimes referred to as energy crops, and research on their geographical adaptation is critical. Many species have been identified and are being evaluated for their fit in Michigan. Switchgrass and miscanthus are two promising species that have received the most attention and research. These species are both perennials (will regrow for several years from root reserves), which offers environmental benefits compared to annual crops.

The economics of a given biomass crop will be a critical consideration as farmers decide whether to add dedicated energy crops to their farming systems. Likewise, the sustainability of various biomass crops is a key factor in determining which biomass crops should be produced. Growing crops for cellulosic ethanol production can have environmental benefits and enhance ecosystem services – the benefits we humans receive from ecosystems – but this is not guaranteed. Scientists at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), led by Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin, are evaluating the economic and environmental sustainability of various biofuel crops. You can find more details of the GLBRC project on-line at http://glbrc.org

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