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Overfertilizing corn undermines ethanol
Date:2/25/2011

Morgan showed that if you look at kilograms of cellulose per hectare, yields don't increase at the same rate for the grain and the leaves and stems. There's really only a small amount of fertilizer needed if you're cropping strictly for cellulose," Masiello said.

Overfertilization also increases the decomposability of corn residue plowed back into the fields. This implies that soil carbon storage becomes less efficient -- another minus for the environment because storing additional carbon in soil can reduce the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and help crops access soil water.

Issues associated with the runoff of nitrogen from fertilizer into streams and leaching into groundwater are common knowledge, Masiello said. She noted the well-established link between nitrogen fertilizer use in the Mississippi Valley and a "dead zone" -- defined as a lack of life-supporting oxygen -- in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrate runoff and leaching into drinking water supplies has also been linked to a number of health problems, the researchers wrote.

Finally, Gallagher noted that improving the yield of feedstock for cellulosic ethanol leaves more corn for food. "There's a billion people who are malnourished, so it's ethically questionable to use corn grain for fuel rather than food," she said.

The researchers hope their methods can be transferred to other crops grown for ethanol. Gallagher, who recently earned her doctorate at Rice and is starting a joint postdoctoral stint between Masiello's lab and the NSF agricultural research station at Michigan State, plans to quantify the effects of nitrogen fertilization on switchgrass, which is growing in importance as a biofuel feedstock.


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Contact: David Ruth
druth@rice.edu
713-348-6327
Rice University
Source:Eurekalert

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