Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Perennial biofuel crops' water consumption similar to corn


Converting large tracts of the Midwest's marginal farming land to perennial biofuel crops carries with it some key unknowns, including how it could affect the balance of water between rainfall, evaporation and movement of soil water to groundwater.

In humid climates such as the U.S. Midwest, evaporation returns more than half of the annual precipitation to the atmosphere, with the remainder available to recharge groundwater and maintain stream flow and lake levels.

Michigan State University research shows that perennial crops' evapotranspiration did not differ greatly from corn -- a finding that contrasts sharply with earlier studies.

Courtesy of Michigan State University

A recent study from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and published in Environmental Research Letters looks at how efficiently "second generation" biofuel crops - perennial, non-food crops such as switchgrass or native grasses - use rainwater and how these crops affect overall water balance.

The study, led by Michigan State University professor of ecosystem ecology and GLBRC scientist Stephen Hamilton, is the first multi-year effort to compare the water use of conventional corn crops to the perennial cropping systems of switchgrass, miscanthus, native grasses, restored prairies and hybrid poplar trees.

"When we established the different cropping systems in 2008," Hamilton said, "we installed soil-water sensors at various depths through the root zone. We've been continuously monitoring the soil water content ever since."

Hamilton uses the soil-water sensors to measure the rate of evapotranspiration occurring within each cropping system. Evapotranspiration refers to the sum total of water lost while the plant is growing, either from transpiration, which is evaporation through the plant stem itself, or from water evaporated off of the plant's leaves or the ground. By measuring the amount of precipitation that has fallen against actual soil water content, it's possible to quantify the water lost to evapotranspiration while each crop is growing.

Hamilton's team reports that the perennial system's evapotranspiration did not differ greatly from corn - a finding that contrasts sharply with earlier studies that found particularly high perennial water use in areas with high water tables. Hamilton's study, however, took place in Michigan's temperate humid climate and on the kind of well-drained soil characteristic of marginal farming land.

"The message here," Hamilton said, "is that in many settings, perennials may not use more water. For well-drained soils in the upper Midwest at least, and probably for eastern North America in general, these results most likely apply, and water balance would not be adversely affected."

Though the study has clear implications for cellulosic, or second-generation, biofuel production in the Midwest, Hamilton says it touches more broadly on some of the expected effects of climate change as well.

Since the evapotranspiration rates of the study's cropping systems held steady across several years of varying precipitation levels, the study also suggests that crop evapotranspiration rates may not be as sensitive to climate change as is currently assumed.

"Our observation that plants use roughly the same amount of water regardless of water availability suggests that a warmer or longer growing season may have a relatively small effect on evapotranspiration and thus could affect landscape water balances less than we previously thought," Hamilton said. "Other changes in climate-driven aspects of the water cycle, such as intense rain events, less snow or shorter periods of ice cover on lakes, may have a much larger effect on groundwater, stream flow and lake levels."


Additional MSU scientists contributed to this research, including Phil Robertson, Mir Hussain, Ajay Bhardwaj and Bruno Basso.

This research was funded by the GLBRC.

Layne Cameron | EurekAlert!

More articles from Agricultural and Forestry Science:

nachricht Forest Management Yields Higher Productivity through Biodiversity
14.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Farming with forests
23.09.2016 | University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES)

All articles from Agricultural and Forestry Science >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>