Currently, ethanol is produced by fermenting the starch in corn kernels, but significantly more liquid fuel energy can be harvested from the stems and leaves of plants. The technology for producing this "cellulosic" ethanol is still quite expensive, but many believe that it will displace corn ethanol as the technology advances.
About 20 percent of the corn crop currently goes into ethanol production in the U.S., DeLucia said, "so we began with the hypothesis that it might be good for soil carbon to put a perennial biofuel crop on the landscape instead of corn."
The researchers analyzed published estimates of changes in soil organic carbon in landscapes converted from natural or agricultural land to biofuel crops. They focused on corn, sugar cane, Miscanthus, switchgrass and native prairie grasses. They also evaluated the impact of harvesting and using corn stover (the plant debris left over after corn is harvested) as a cellulosic biofuel source.
Their analysis showed that converting native land (grassland or forest) to sugarcane dramatically reduced soil carbon, creating a carbon deficit that would take decades to repay. While perennial grasses add carbon to the soil each year, DeLucia said, it could take up to a century for the sugar cane to rebuild soil carbon to former levels on native land.
Harvesting the corn residue for cellulosic ethanol production also reduced the carbon in the soil. The more plant residue was removed, the more the soil carbon declined.
Planting perennial grasses on existing agricultural lands had the most beneficial effect on soil carbon, the researchers found. Although there was an initial drop in carbon as fields were converted from corn to Miscanthus, switchgrass or native perennial grasses, the loss was fairly quickly offset by yearly gains in soil carbon as the grasses became established.
"Consistent with o
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign