Brownfields may turn green with help from Michigan State research

August 03, 2006

East Lansing, Mich. -- 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.

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."
-end-


Michigan State University

Related Biofuels Articles from Brightsurf:

Making biofuels cheaper by putting plants to work
One strategy to make biofuels more competitive is to make plants do some of the work themselves.

How to make it easier to turn plant waste into biofuels
Researchers have developed a new process that could make it much cheaper to produce biofuels such as ethanol from plant waste and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Barriers and opportunities in renewable biofuels production
Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have identified two main challenges for renewable biofuel production from cheap sources.

How biofuels from plant fibers could combat global warming
A study from Colorado State University finds new promise for biofuels produced from switchgrass, a non-edible native grass that grows in many parts of North America.

Calculating the CO2 emissions of biofuels is not enough
A new EU regulation aims to shrink the environmental footprint of biofuels starting in 2021.

Algae cultivation technique could advance biofuels
Washington State University researchers have developed a way to grow algae more efficiently -- in days instead of weeks -- and make the algae more viable for several industries, including biofuels.

Cutting the cost of ethanol, other biofuels and gasoline
Biofuels like the ethanol in US gasoline could get cheaper thanks to experts at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Michigan State University.

Cellulosic biofuels can benefit the environment if managed correctly
Could cellulosic biofuels -- or liquid energy derived from grasses and wood -- become a green fuel of the future, providing an environmentally sustainable way of meeting energy needs?

Making oil from algae -- towards more efficient biofuels
The mechanism behind oil synthesis within microalgae cells has been revealed by a Japanese research team.

WSU study finds people willing to pay more for new biofuels
When it comes to second generation biofuels, Washington State University research shows that consumers are willing to pay a premium of approximately 11 percent over conventional fuel.

Read More: Biofuels News and Biofuels Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.