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DOE Project at U of I Will Measure Bioenergy Crop Carbon Emissions

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $3.3 million grant to a multidisciplinary research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop a precise system for measuring greenhouse gas emissions from commercial bioenergy crops grown in central Illinois.

The three-year project through the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) is expected to reduce emissions associated with ethanol and other biofuels by enabling new technology for managing bioenergy crops, improving yield, reducing overfertilization, and designing new tools for “smart farms.” The vast data collected will be publicly available and could someday lead to financial rewards for farmers who reduce emissions through sustainable crop management.

Led by Kaiyu Guan, an Assistant Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) and a Blue Waters Professor at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the team will establish the Midwest Bioenergy Crop Landscape Laboratory (MBC-Lab) to monitor emissions on three 85-acre maize and soybean fields in Champaign County.

Corn and soybeans are the two major crops marketed to biofuel producers, with more than 75 percent grown in the Midwest. But current practices to grow those crops emit nitrous oxide (N2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4) into the atmosphere — all greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with global warming. N2O, which also degrades the Earth’s ozone layer, is a product of excessive fertilizer use. And annual tilling aerates the soil, allowing microbes to break down carbon in the soil and release CO2 into the air.

Ethanol and other biofuels could meet up to 5 percent of U.S. energy demand with net-zero emissions, or even “carbon negativity” — sequestering more carbon in the soil than the production process emits. But that will require new farming practices that drive down emissions and improve yield, such as adopting no-till or cover crops to stabilize the soil or applying fertilizer at the right time and amount.

The project’s other co-investigators: Carl Bernacchi, an Adjunct Professor in Plant Biology and a Plant Physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service; D.K. Lee, a Crop Sciences Professor; Jong Lee, Principal Research Scientist at NCSA; and Jeremy Guest, a Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor.

Publication Date: 01/24/2020
Editor: Julie Wurth