At the moment, America’s number one crop for producing biofuel is corn. However, naturally growing plants like switchgrass also have great potential as a biofuel crop because they do not require much, if any, inputs such as watering, fertilizing, or pesticides. To date, it has been difficult to find the ideal location for harvesting the right grasslands to make it economically feasible. To help in this effort, the US Geological Survey (USGS) has developed a new method for mapping grasslands. The maps created will help locate the areas with the highest potential for cultivating biofuel crops, which also require the least amount of energy input and minimal environmental impact.
USGS scientists investigated the grasslands of the Greater Platte River Basin using remote sensing data from satellites. This area covers most of Nebraska as well as parts of adjacent states. The goal was to find the areas best suited for harvesting switchgrass which in turn produces cellulosic biofuel.
“This innovative scientific study takes some of the guesswork out of deciding whether it could be feasible to raise a potentially high value crop for biofuels on America’s grasslands,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Using non-food crops for fuel grown on land not now under cultivation is a low-impact step towards America’s energy independence.”
The satellites were used to collect data on the type of vegetation, soils, terrain, weather, and other physical data. The data was analyzed by USGS scientists, taking into account long-term weather changes such as drought cycles, as well as short-term changes such as fire or overgrazing.
The US Government is trying to encourage the adoption of nonfood plants to be used to produce cellulosic biofuels such as switchgrass, woody biomass, and other agricultural and municipal wastes.
Switchgrass in particular is already widespread on the prairie, and grows on land that is considered unusable for row crop production. It is a deep-rooted, high-reaching plant that grows well in sandy or gravelly soils where corn would not be viable.
Solutions to certain technical challenges need to be found for the advancement of cellulosic biofuels. Mapping out the most economically feasible locations for cultivation is big step in bringing this energy source to a competitive market position and moving the United States towards energy independence.
Link to USGS Grassland Maps: http://lca.usgs.gov/lca/biofuels_platte/mapgallery.php
Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.