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NSF funds research at Illinois on sustainable biofuels infrastructure

The National Science Foundation announced this month that it is funding a new research effort at the University of Illinois aimed at understanding how and whether it is possible to build sustainable infrastructure to support the emerging biofuels industry.

The $2 million grant is one of six NSF awards this year to institutions engaged in engineering infrastructure research. The Illinois team will tackle the engineering, social, environmental and economic constraints of developing and maintaining critical engineering infrastructure so as to sustainably support the emerging bio-economy.

The interdisciplinary nature of the effort is reflected in the breadth of expertise of its researchers: civil and environmental engineering professors Ximing Cai (project leader), Yanfeng Ouyang, Imad Al-Qadi and Murugesu Sivapalan (also in geography); agricultural and biological engineering professor Steven Eckhoff; atmospheric sciences professor Atul Jain; agricultural and consumer economics professor Madhu Khanna; natural resources and environmental science professor Gregory McIsaac; and sociology professor Stephen Gasteyer (formerly at Illinois and now at Michigan State University).

The focus of the research is biofuels infrastructure in Illinois, but the findings will be of interest on a global scale, the researchers said. The Midwest is a prime agricultural region and the manner in which the biofuels industry develops in the Midwest will have implications for the overall food and agricultural picture.

Illinois already leads the nation in research on a promising biofuels crop, a tall perennial grass known as Miscanthus x giganteus. A recent large-scale study from Illinois showed that Miscanthus is more than twice as productive as corn as a biofuels feedstock, and that it may do best on marginal land.

The university also is one of three U.S. institutions selected last year to be part of a $500 million, BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, one of the largest biofuels research initiatives in the U.S.

But developing new feedstocks and converting them to biofuels is only part of the equation of building a sustainable biofuels industry, the researchers said.

"We already have an agricultural economy in the Midwest and we have the infrastructure to manage it," Sivapalan said. "Now the question is whether the existing infrastructure is able to cope with the sudden infusion of bioenergy-related activities, including new crops and a whole lot of new refineries."

"From a biophysical point of view, we know that we can grow biofuels in this region, at least," Jain said. "We have plenty of water and nutrients and the land is quite fertile. But the issue is what the environmental implications of growing biofuels are."

The new biofuels industry will not succeed until and unless all of its potential impacts are fully understood and managed, Cai said. Land use, water use, transportation issues, the economic viability of various approaches and the impact on climate are all important considerations and must be studied in detail, he said.

The researchers already are analyzing how much water and fertilizer different crops require and how different agricultural practices affect water quality and the runoff of pollutants such as nitrates and phosphorous.

Some potential biofuels crops, such as Miscanthus, require less fertilizer than other crops and are efficient at extracting nitrogen from the soil, potentially reducing fertilizer runoff pollution. But Miscanthus may consume more water than corn, which could have impacts on water supplies and aquatic ecosystems.

Transportation is another critical part of the equation, Ouyang said.

"Already our interstate system and the local roads are very congested, especially in urban areas," he said. "We need to transport the biomass, the feedstocks, to the bio-refineries. This, with the ethanol shipments, would add a lot of truck loads to the roads."

"The increase in truck loading and traffic will affect the service life of our roads," said Al-Qadi, who directs the Illinois Center for Transportation. "This must be accounted for as part of a holistic model that considers the economic impact of biofuels."

Social factors, such as competition over water or the promise of new jobs, also will play a major role in ensuring the success or failure of the biofuels industry, Gasteyer said.

In addition to analyzing the overall sustainability of the biofuels infrastructure system, the researchers will model the dynamic interplay of all these factors to help understand the resiliency of such a complex system. Coupled models from different fields will allow them to test various scenarios, to see which components are most critical and how the whole system is affected by a particular extreme event, such as a drought.

"Will this biofuel economy be viable or not?" Cai said. "Our research will provide an integrated framework for addressing that question from a perspective of engineering infrastructure, as well as environmental and social impacts."


Contact: Diana Yates
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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