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U.S. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided the initial planning dollars for the Sun Grant Initiative to establish the five regional centers. Working with the USDA, the Sun Grant Regional Centers are seeking to bring an industrial ecology framework to the development of agricultural-based biofuels and bioproducts by developing a database that captures three core subsystems of biomass utilization: feedstock production, feedstock logistics and feedstock conversion. The database model will be an important step toward a fully integrated systems approach to bioenergy production. Each Sun Grant Center is in charge of collecting detailed information on various aspects of the three subsystems and generating projects with a specific focus. The North Central Regional Sun Grant Center is focusing its efforts on the feedstock conversion subsystem and on new or emerging feedstocks for the region.

USDA Sun Grant Program

Figure 1: Number of projects (top) and funding amounts (below) in each general research area with USDA funds.
Figure 1: Number of projects (top) and funding amounts (below) in each general research area with USDA funds.

The Sun Grant Initiative was first authorized in the 2002 Farm Bill and reauthorized in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills. Funding allocated from the 2002 Farm Bill was used to conduct stakeholder listening sessions in the North Central Region and each of the other four Sun Grant regions. During the last 10 years, and continuing to the present time, funding from USDA has been directed at important local and regional bioenergy research and outreach topics. The North Central Regional Sun Grant Center has funded projects on diverse biomass. feedstocks, particularly those that will not compete directly with food crops, and on the production systems in which these feedstock would be incorporated; conversion processes; life cycle analyses; feedstock logistics; and bio-product development (Figure 19).USDA has invested nearly $3.5 million in the North Central Region, leveraged with about $650,000 in associated cost share (Figure 1).

  • A project at North Dakota State University clearly demonstrated that forage sorghum and camelina (a nonfood oilseed) can be grown successfully as energy crops in advanced cropping systems in the North Central Region. Specifically, researchers found that forage sorghum in a relay-crop system or as a full-season solo crop was the best biomass feedstock for the area because it was high yielding (up to 7.2 tons/acre), drought tolerant and required low inputs. Researchers noted that including sorghum in this type of system reduced soil erosion and improved assimilation of atmospheric CO2 during fall and early spring. Researchers concluded that sorghum relay or double cropping after camelina has potential to lengthen the growing season and produce two feedstocks for biofuels in one season, thus increasing crop diversity and potential economic returns to producers.
  • Soil salinity is a growing issue in the North Central Region.

    Figure 2. Vigorous transplanted prairie cordgrass plants (height exceeded 8 feet) in a South Dakota field
    Figure 2. Vigorous transplanted prairie cordgrass plants (height exceeded 8 feet) in a South Dakota field

    Researchers at South Dakota State University evaluated prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), a widely adapted warm-season grass, as a potential bioenergy feedstock that could be grown on soils with high salinity. They demonstrated that prairie cordgrass could be established on highly saline soils from seed or from transplanted seedlings (Figure 2). Corn planted in a similar area did not produce a grain crop due to salt stress.

  • A team at the University of Minnesota explored ways to reduce transportation costs associated with low-density biomass feedstocks and to provide feedstock producers with a potential method to densify bulky feedstocks on-farm.

    Figure 3: The microwave-assisted pyrolysis (MAP) and gasification concept
    Figure 3: The microwave-assisted pyrolysis (MAP) and gasification concept

    Their microwave-assisted pyrolysis process efficiently converts bulky feedstocks to pyrolysis oils using portable units that can be utilized on farms (Figure 3). All or some of the energy can be used on-farm and the resultant biochar can be put back on the soil. Potential on-farm conversion of biomass feedstock and production and sales of value-added energy and bio-based products will provide extra incomes to producers and rural communities.

  • At the University of Nebraska, a team of researchers evaluated the impacts of perennial warm-season grasses grown for biofuel production on soil and environmental quality, with particular emphasis on marginally productive croplands. Growing perennial WSGs may affect a number of soil ecosystem services such as biomass production, soil carbon (C) sequestration, nutrient cycling, water erosion, wind erosion and soil properties. They found that differences in soil and environmental parameters among perennial grass monocultures and polycultures and N, P and K fertilization levels were not significant. In addition, they noted that on marginally productive cropland, warm-season grasses can be a good alternative to corn residue removal to reduce risks of wind and water erosion, improve water retention capacity, and improve soil health.

  • Figure 4. Occurrence of the switchgrass gall midge (Chilophaga virgate) in native and planted switchgrass across the U.S.
    Figure 4. Occurrence of the switchgrass gall midge (Chilophaga virgate) in native and planted switchgrass across the U.S.

    As woody biomass becomes more attractive as an energy source in the world energy economy, the economic benefits to foresters and the ecological costs to forested systems need to be evaluated. An interdisciplinary research project led by a group at Purdue University incorporated the efforts of foresters, economists, wood product scientists, entomologists and ecologists to address the economic and ecological tradeoffs of woody biomass harvesting in a Central Hardwoods forest. They used their data to construct an online biomass harvest calculator (Figure 4) to inform land managers as to when bioenergy harvests can be encouraged as a viable, sustainable land-management strategy.

  • One invention 
  • One provisional patent
  • Five jobs created.
  • Training of undergraduate (41), M.S. (20), and Ph.D. (12) students and post-docs (7)
  • More than 40 peer-reviewed publications.
  • More than 90 presentations to diverse audiences.
  • Ten outreach publications.
  • Numerous field days and other outreach activities.

All projects funded through USDA are listed below along with the lead investigator and her or his institution. Regionally-competed projects:

  1. Double- and relay-cropping systems for oil and biomass feedstock production in North Central region, M. Berti, North Dakota State University
  2. Development of production system for emerging feed stock for double utilization, V. Jeliazkov, University of Wyoming
  3. Sustainable feedstocks for an oilseed based biofuel industry in the Dakotas, K. Grady, South Dakota State University
  4. Identification of stable neopolyploids for the development of high yielding prairie cordgrass for sustainable biomass feedstock production on marginal land, L. Rayburn, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  5. Soil and environmental responses to dedicated bioenergy crops on marginally productive croplands, H. Blanco, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  6. Economic and ecological impacts of woody biomass harvest in deciduous forests of the central hardwoods region, J. Dunning, Purdue University
  7. Development of novel fast pyrolysis and gasification processes, R. Ruan, University of Minnesota
  8. Gene discovery for delayed senescence in bioenergy crops for the improvement of total biomass production, Rohila, South Dakota State University
  9. Defining geographic range and determining potential impact of the switchgrass gall midge among best adapted switchgrass varieties, P. Johnson, South Dakota State University
  10. Managing perennial cover crops for sustainable corn stover biomass production, K. Moore, Iowa State University
  11. Use of pelleted biomass to reduce pretreatment severity, S. Pryor, North Dakota State University
  12. Improving Cold Tolerance in Sorghum: A Promising Feedstock for Biofuels and Biobased Products in the Northern Great Plains, M. Berti, North Dakota State University
  13. Crop Enterprise and Environmental Budgeting Tool (CE2T) for Biomass Cropping Systems, G. Johnson, University of Minnesota
  14. Quantifying the contribution of native and non-native pollinators to Brassica carinata yield and carinata’s impact on pollinator health, C. Fenster, South Dakota State University
  15. Sustainable oilseed feedstocks: development of best management practices for the production of Brassica carinata (l) in the Dakotas, T. Nleya, South Dakota State University
  16. Accelerating improvement of biomass sorghum as biofuel feedstock via high throughput phenotyping, Y. Ge, University of Nebraska
  17. Sustainable materials from corn stover, G. Vemuri, Sasya, LLC
  18. Evaluation of stability of heterosis for biomass yield in prairie cordgrass on marginal land, D. Lee, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  19. Growing bioenergy crops on marginally productive croplands: implications on erosion and water quality parameters, H. Blanco, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  20. Achieving conservation and renewable energy goals with the Conservation Reserve Program, M. Khanna, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  21. Woody bioenergy feedstock from marginal agricultural lands: Red cedar feedstock quality and environmental sustainability, Thomas Sauer, USDA ARS, Iowa
  22. Elucidation of competition patterns among three perennial biofuel feedstocks species in the North Central USA, J. Wu, South Dakota State University
  1. CO2: An emerging feedstock for direct production of third-generation biofuels, R. Zhou
  2. Enhancing biomass production in alfalfa, Y. Wu
  3. A New Approach to producing biomass feedstocks from marginal land and reclaiming salt impacted soils in the North Central USA, A. Boe
  4. Renewable composites prepared from thermoset resins: Synthesis, characterization and curing kinetics of novel resins synthesized from lactic acid and xylitol, K. Muthukumarappan
  5. Develop lignocellulosic nanocomposites from prairie cordgrass and corn stalks for smart packaging applications, L. Wei
  6. Using genomic technologies to characterize sustainability traits in prairie cordgrass, J. Gonzalez
  7. Endophytes of Prairie Cordgrass and Their Potential to Increase Environmentally Sustainable Biomass Production, H. Bucking
  8. Plasma modified biochar electrode for nitrate recycle with capacitive deionization technology, Z. Gu 16 | U.S. Department of Agriculture | Sun Grant Initiative Ten-Year Report