Growing crops for biofuels summons images of fuel alternatives springing from the rural heartland. But a Michigan State University partnership with DaimlerChrysler is looking at turning industrial brownfields green.
Kurt Thelen, MSU professor of crop and soil sciences, is leading the investigation to examine the possibility that some oilseed crops like soybeans, sunflower and canola, and other crops such as corn and switchgrass, can be grown on abandoned industrial sites for use in ethanol or biodiesel fuel production. Another partner is NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization that supports energy technology development.
The results of the work conducted here might sprout similar sites across the state and nation in areas that aren't desirable for commercial or residential uses. The results also will contribute crops for biofuel production and may help clean up contaminated soils.
"Right now, brownfields don't grow anything," Thelen said. "This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we're looking at the possibilities of taking land that isn't productive and using it to both learn and produce."
The project now is a two-acre parcel that is part of a former industrial dump site in Oakland County's Rose Township. Thelen's group is looking to determine if crops grown on brownfield sites can produce adequate yields to make them viable for use in biofuel production. The crops also need to produce adequate quantities of seed oil.
A secondary objective is to examine whether the growing plants actually contribute to bioremediation, meaning they take up contaminants from the soils, without affecting their quality for use in biofuels. This might make them especially useful to grow on contaminated brownfields.
As interest increases in the use of biofuels to offset dependence on fossil fuels, there are challenges on many fronts. Crop researchers are looking at which crops and crop varieties possess the best qualities for this use, and farmers are contemplating new marketing options.
At the same time, engineers are exploring more efficient and effective biofuel production systems. There currently is no national standardized specification for what constitutes B20, a blend of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent petroleum diesel that is commonly used in diesel engines. Engineers and the government are working to set a standard. When it's established, Thelen hopes to have recommendations ready on the best crop varieties that meet the standards.
"As the chemical engineers work on developing a national spec for B20, we'll grow the crops in the marginal areas and see if they can meet it," Thelen said. "We're replicating our study on campus on good agricultural land to compare yields and the quality of biofuel produced from an agricultural land base versus a marginal brownfield land base and see if there's a difference in yield and quality of biofuel."
DaimlerChrysler has been selling the Jeep Liberty SUV with a diesel engine, and beginning in early 2007 it will offer a diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV. In both cases, the vehicles are fueled with B5 (5 percent biodiesel fuel) at the factory. This fall, the company will approve use of B20 in the Dodge Ram diesel pickup for fleet customers who use fuel that meets the current military fuel quality specification.
"Renewable fuels such as biodiesel can be a home-grown solution to our nation's environmental, energy and economic challenges," said Deborah Morrissett, vice president of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler. "This research project with Michigan State can make an important contribution toward reducing our nation's reliance on oil."
The three-year study is supported by DaimlerChrysler, NextEnergy and Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs), the state's plant industry initiative at MSU. The study also is supported by the MSU Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.
"Biofuel production is going to require a significant land base to meet future production expectations," Thelen said. "Use of marginal lands or sites not preferable for food crops is a good idea. We'll be looking at whether it is something that might offer multiple benefits."