MSU Receives $1.7 Million in Stimulus Funding for Biofuel Sustainability Research

MSU scientists will use approximately $2 million of $8.099 million in new funding to study the environmental benefits and consequences of cellulosic biofuel crops.

September 7, 2009

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Phil Robertson

Michigan State University scientists will use approximately $2 million of $8.099 million in new funding allocated to the Department of Energy (DOE) Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) to study the environmental benefits and consequences of cellulosic biofuel crops.

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the DOE provided $4 million to enhance and accelerate GLBRC sustainability research and allocated another $4.099 million for plant cell wall imaging technology.

The money allocated to biofuel sustainability research will be used to study carbon cycling, water quality and greenhouse gas emissions associated with biofuel cropping systems, as well as develop more complex modeling technology, said Phil Robertson, MAES crop and soil scientist, who leads GLBRC sustainability research. Modeling activities require intricate parallel computing to integrate satellite imagery and land use information into mathematical models of biofuel production for the entire United States. The models, based on results from experiments in the field, will allow researchers and decision makers to see possible answers to "what if" questions about various biofuel crops in various landscapes.

"Quantitative models, together with the underlying field research, will allow us to design biofuel cropping systems that are both profitable and environmentally sustainable," Robertson said. "We need to ensure that the crops we'll be using for cellulosic energy do in fact contribute to climate stabilization and cleaner air and water, as well as provide biodiversity benefits such as habitat for birds and beneficial insects. Recovery Act funding will allow us to make better decisions sooner."

The MSU Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) is the principal field site for GLBRC sustainability research, which is also conducted at other locations across Michigan as well as in Wisconsin. KBS is one of 15 MAES field research stations. At KBS, researchers have established long-term biofuel cropping systems to provide detailed information on their productivity and environmental performance. MSU researchers are investigating energy yield, water use and carbon balance of various crops such as switchgrass, hybrid poplars and grass mixtures, including restored prairie.

"Different crops also provide different kinds of habitats for birds and insects," Robertson explained. "We're also studying the potential for cellulosic biofuels to provide biodiversity benefits such as pest control and pollination for plants and crops in other parts of the landscape. The general idea is to provide the information needed to design future biofuel cropping systems that provide environmental benefits rather than to simply mitigate potential harm."

Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are partners in the GLBRC. University of Wisconsin scientists will lead the research analyzing plant cell walls.

"About half of the total funds will be used to provide a new experimental core facility and computational resources to analyze and alter the structure of plant cell walls, the polymer complex that provides the sugars for cellulosic biofuels," said Tim Donohue, GLBRC director and UW-Madison professor of bacteriology. "The new magnetic imaging and associated computational resources will allow new, high-throughput approaches that are crucial for teams across the GLBRC. The Recovery Act funding allows us to move rapidly and deploy a new, state-of-the-art approach to the cellulosic biofuels portfolio of the GLBRC and other DOE-funded centers."

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