Biofuel production and climate mitigation potential from marginal lands in US North Central region

I. Gelfand, R. Sahajpal, X. Zhang, R. C. Izaurralde, G. P. Robertson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


An ever-increasing demand for liquid fuels, amidst concerns of anthropogenic impacts on the environment and fossil fuels availability, has spurred a strong interest in the development of agriculturally-based renewable energy sources. However, increasing demand for food as well as direct and indirect effects on land use, have raised concerns about reliance on grain-based ethanol and shifted research towards the direction of cellulosic feedstocks. In order to understand the future possibility for using agricultural systems for bio-fuel production, we present here a full greenhouse gas (GHG) balance of six potential sources of cellulosic feedstocks production. From 1991 to 2008, we measured GHGs sinks and sources in cropped and nearby unmanaged ecosystems in SW Michigan. The measurements included soil fluxes of GHGs (N2O and CH4), soil organic carbon concentration change, agronomic practices data, and biomass yields. We analyzed two types of intensively managed annual cropping systems under corn-soybean-wheat rotation (conventional tillage and no till), two perennial systems (alfalfa and poplar plantation), and one successional system. The use of agricultural residues for biofuel feedstock from conventionally-tilled crops had the lowest climate stabilization potential (-9 ±13 gCO2e m-2 y-1). In contrast, biomass collected from a successional system fertilized with N at123 kg ha-1y-1 showed the highest climate stabilization potential (-749 ±30 gCO2e m-2 y-1). We used our results to parameterize the EPIC model, which, together with GIS analysis was used to scale up the biomass productivity of the best environmentally performing systems to the marginal lands of the 10-state U.S. North Central region. Assuming 80 km as the maximum distance for road haulage to the biorefinery from the field, we identified 32 potential biorefinery placements each capable of supplying sufficient feedstock to produce at least 133 × 106 L y-1. In total, ethanol production from marginal lands could produce ~29 × 109 L ethanol y-1, or about 48% of the 2007 U.S. Congress legislative mandate.
Original languageEnglish GB
Title of host publicationAGU Fall Meeting 2010
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • 0402 BIOGEOSCIENCES / Agricultural systems
  • 0426 BIOGEOSCIENCES / Biosphere/atmosphere interactions
  • 0466 BIOGEOSCIENCES / Modeling
  • 0499 BIOGEOSCIENCES / New fields


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