Sustainability

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GLBRC's Sustainability Research Area

Sustainability

Focusing on one attribute comes at a high price.

At the GLBRC, sustainability researchers are exploring complex issues in agricultural and industrial systems. Research focuses on understanding the attributes and mechanisms responsible for the environmental sustainability of biofuel production systems, such as environmental impacts — many of which may be positive — and socioeconomic factors including incentives and policy options

Learn about the Center's research approach

Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability Lead

A crop and soil scientist and ecosystem ecologist, Robertson focuses much of his research on the role that agriculture plays in greenhouse gas dynamics, and he is internationally known for his expertise in this area. Robertson has been the director...

Sustainability Lead

Jackson’s program focuses on structure and function of managed, semi-natural and natural grassland ecosystems. Research in Jackson’s grassland ecology lab spans many levels of ecological organization, from grass identification at the DNA level to landscape diversity effects on alternative biofuels...

Project Overview

A device used for measuring plant utilization of solar radiation sits in front of plots of switchgrass, corn and poplar growing in the Great Lake Bioenergy Research Center's fields at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Arlington, WI.GLBRC Sustainability research ranges from the microbial community level to regional modeling, and researchers conduct fieldwork at different project sites to reflect this diversity of scale. Small plots at Kellogg Biological Station in Michigan and the Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Wisconsin provide locations for measurement-intensive experiments, while investigators work in larger scale-up fields to collect data on carbon balances and biogeochemical processes. Finally, researchers pursue ecosystem-level biodiversity questions across landscapes, including marginal lands, in central Michigan and Wisconsin.

Specific sustainability projects include:

  • Novel biofuel production systems
  • Microbial-plant interactions for improved biofuel production
  • Biogeochemical responses
  • Biodiversity responses
  • Economic responses
  • Modeling, design and testing of drop-in fuels
  • Process synthesis and technoeconomic evaluation for biomass-to-fuels technologies.

 

Sustainability Publications

Actionable knowledge for ecological intensification of agriculture

Willemien Geertsema; Walter A.H. Rossing; Douglas A. Landis; Felix J.J.A. Bianchi; Paul C.J. van Rijn; Joop H.J. Schaminée; Teja Tscharntke; Wopke van der Werf

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2016

Ecological intensification of agriculture (EI) aims to conserve and promote biodiversity and the sustainable use of associated ecosystem services to support resource-efficient production. In many cases EI requires fundamental changes in farm and landscape management as well as the organizations and institutions that support agriculture. Ecologists can facilitate EI by engaging with stakeholders and, in the process, by generating “actionable knowledge” (that is, knowledge that specifically supports stakeholder decision making and consequent actions). Using three case studies as examples, we propose four principles whereby science can improve the delivery of actionable knowledge for EI: (1) biodiversity conservation helps to ensure the delivery of ecosystem services, (2) management of ecosystem services benefits from a landscape-scale approach, (3) ecosystem service trade-offs and synergies need to be articulated, and (4) EI is associated with complex social dynamics involving farmers, governments, researchers, and related institutions. These principles have the potential to enhance adoption of EI, but institutional and policy challenges remain.

Cellulosic feedstock production on Conservation Reserve Program land: potential yields and environmental effects

Stephen D. LeDuc; Xuesong Zhang; Christopher M. Clark; César Izaurralde

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2016

Producing biofuel feedstocks on current agricultural land raises questions of a “food-vs-fuel” tradeoff. The use of current or former Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land offers an alternative; yet the volumes of ethanol that could be produced and the potential environmental impacts of such a policy are unclear. Here, we applied the Environmental Policy Integrated Climate (EPIC) model to a U.S. Department of Agriculture database of over 200,000 CRP polygons in Iowa, USA, as a case study. We simulated yields and environmental impacts of growing three cellulosic biofuel feedstocks on CRP land: (i) an Alamo-variety switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.); (ii) a generalized mixture of C4 and C3 grasses; (iii) and no-till corn (Zea mays L.) with residue removal. We simulated yields, soil erosion, and soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stocks and fluxes. We found that although no-till corn with residue removal produced approximately 2.6-4.4 times more ethanol per area compared to switchgrass and the grass mixture, it also led to 3.9-4.5 times more erosion, 4.4-5.2 times more cumulative N loss, and a 10% reduction in total soil carbon as opposed to a 6-11% increase. Switchgrass resulted in the best environmental outcomes even when expressed on a per liter ethanol basis. Our results suggest planting no-till corn with residue removal should only be done on low slope soils to minimize environmental concerns. Overall, this analysis provides additional information to policy makers on the potential outcome and effects of producing biofuel feedstocks on current or former conservation lands. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Climate-smart soils

K.eith Paustian; Johannes Lehmann; Stephen Ogle; David Reay; Philip Robertson; Pete Smith

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2016

Soils are integral to the function of all terrestrial ecosystems and to food and fibre production. An overlooked aspect of soils is their potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Although proven practices exist, the implementation of soil-based greenhouse gas mitigation activities are at an early stage and accurately quantifying emissions and reductions remains a substantial challenge. Emerging research and information technology developments provide the potential for a broader inclusion of soils in greenhouse gas policies. Here we highlight ‘state of the art’ soil greenhouse gas research, summarize mitigation practices and potentials, identify gaps in data and understanding and suggest ways to close such gaps through new research, technology and collaboration.

CO2 uptake is offset by CH4 and N2O emissions in a poplar short-rotation coppice

Terenzio Zenone; Donatella Zona; Ilya Gelfand; Bert Gielen; Marta Camino-Serrano; Reinhart Ceulemans

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2016

The need for renewable energy sources will lead to a considerable expansion in the planting of dedicated fast-growing biomass crops across Europe. These are commonly cultivated as short-rotation coppice (SRC), and currently poplar (Populus spp.) is the most widely planted. In this study, we report the greenhouse gas (GHG) fluxes of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) measured using eddy covariance technique in an SRC plantation for bioenergy production. Measurements were made during the period 2010–2013, that is, during the first two rotations of the SRC. The overall GHG balance of the 4 years of the study was an emission of 1.90 (±1.37) Mg CO2eq ha−1; this indicated that soil trace gas emissions offset the CO2 uptake by the plantation. CH4 and N2O contributed almost equally to offset the CO2 uptake of −5.28 (±0.67) Mg CO2eq ha−1 with an overall emission of 3.56 (±0.35) Mg CO2eq ha−1 of N2O and of 3.53 (±0.85) Mg CO2eq ha−1 of CH4. N2O emissions mostly occurred during one single peak a few months after the site was converted to SRC; this peak comprised 44% of the total N2O loss during the two rotations. Accurately capturing emission events proved to be critical for deriving correct estimates of the GHG balance. The nitrogen (N) content of the soil and the water table depth were the two drivers that best explained the variability in N2O and CH4, respectively. This study underlines the importance of the ‘non-CO2 GHGs’ on the overall balance. Further long-term investigations of soil trace gas emissions should monitor the N content and the mineralization rate of the soil, as well as the microbial community, as drivers of the trace gas emissions.

Comparative productivity of alternative cellulosic bioenergy cropping systems in the North Central USA

Gregg R. Sanford; Lawrence G. Oates; Poonam Jasrotia; Kurt D. Thelen; Philip Robertson; Randall D. Jackson

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2016

Biofuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks have the potential to improve a wide range of ecosystem services while simultaneously reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Here, we report on the six-year production potential (above ground net primary production, ANPP), post-frost harvested biomass (yield), and gross harvest efficiency (GHE = yield/ANPP) of seven model bioenergy cropping systems in both southcentral Wisconsin (ARL) and southwest Michigan (KBS). The cropping systems studied were continuous corn (Zea mays L.), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), giant miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus Greef & Deuter ex Hodkinson & Renvoize), hybrid poplar (Populus nigra × P. maximowiczii A. Henry ‘NM6’), a native grass mixture (5 sown species), an early successional community, and a restored prairie (18 sown species). Overall the most productive cropping systems were corn > giant miscanthus > and switchgrass, which were significantly more productive than native grasses ≈ restored prairie ≈ early successional ≈ and hybrid poplar, although some systems (e.g. hybrid poplar) differed significantly by location. Highest total ANPP was observed in giant miscanthus (35.2 ± 2.0 Mg ha−1 yr−1) at KBS during the sixth growing season. Six-year cumulative biomass yield from hybrid poplar at KBS (55.4 ± 1.3 Mg ha−1) was high but significantly lower than corn and giant miscanthus (65.5 ± 1.5, 65.2 ± 5.5 Mg ha−1, respectively). Hypothesized yield advantages of diversity in perennial cropping systems were not observed during this period. Harvested biomass yields were 60, 56, and 44% of ANPP for corn, perennial grass, and restored prairie, respectively, suggesting that relatively simple changes in agronomic management (e.g. harvest timing and harvest equipment modification) may provide significant gains in bioenergy crop yields. Species composition was an important determinant of GHE in more diverse systems. Results show that well-established, dedicated bioenergy crops are capable of producing as much biomass as corn stover, but with fewer inputs.

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