The study, conducted at and in collaboration with the National Science Foundation's W.K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University (MSU), showed that although feeding the plant more fertilizer increases the grain's cellulose content, grain yield quickly hits a plateau. "The kilograms of grain you get per hectare goes up pretty fast and peaks," Masiello said. At the same time, the researchers found only a modest increase in plant and stem cellulose, the basic component used to produce cellulosic ethanol.
"The implicit assumption has always been that the response of plant cellulose to fertilizer is going to be the same as the grain response, but we've showed this assumption may not always hold, at least for corn," Gallagher said.
Nitrogen fertilization encourages production of lignin within the plant, and without lignin, stalks won't stand. Lignin production comes at the expense of useful cellulose production. The researchers found that lignin yields from plant residue increased at nearly twice the rate as cellulose in response to nitrogen fertilization, and they said this implies "that residue feedstock quality declines as more nitrogen fertilizer is applied."
Lignin breaks down slowly via bacterial enzymes, and it is expensive to remove by chemical or mechanical processes that create a bottleneck in cellulosic ethanol production. "The ideal cellulosic ethanol crop has no lignin -- except you can't have a plant without it, because it would fall over. Plants need some lignin to maintain structure," said co-author Bill Hockaday, a former Rice postdoctoral researcher and now an assistant professor at Baylor University. "What we want is a low lignin-to-cellulose ratio."
Reducing fertilizer to the bare-bones minimum serves that purpose. "
|Contact: David Ruth|