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 s
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign