University of Minnesota researchers find prairies could provide high GHG savings as bioenergy feedstock

January 29, 2019 |

In Minnesota, in an ongoing effort to discover the ideal conditions to grow alternative biofuels that offer more environmental benefits, University of Minnesota scientists applied their research on native prairies in the Upper Midwest to understand marginal lands—particularly abandoned and degraded agricultural fields.

In the 10-year study published in Nature Sustainability, researchers utilized 36 plots at an abandoned agricultural site in the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve to plant 32 species of prairie and savanna plants that are native to Minnesota. In 2007, researchers divided the plots into several groups and assigned them a combination of two treatments: water addition (i.e., irrigated or non-irrigated) and nitrogen fertilization (i.e., 0 g/m2, 7 g/m2, 14 g/m2).

Over the last decade, researchers found that:

  • moderate treatments (irrigation and 7 g/m2 of nitrogen) had the best biomass yields and soil carbon storage, while having negligible effects on the stability, diversity and nutrient loss to groundwater;
  • compared with the control (non-irrigated and no additional nitrogen), moderate treatments resulted in almost twice the yield and soil carbon storage and—if the plants were converted into bioenergy to displace fossil fuels—it would result in twice the greenhouse gas savings;
  • compared with the moderate treatment, the more intensive treatment (irrigation and 14 g/m2 of nitrogen) had 30 percent lower greenhouse gas savings, 10 times greater nitrate leaching and 120 percent greater loss in plant diversity.

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Category: Research

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