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Michigan State, DaimlerChrysler Test Brownfields for Biofuel Crops

Michigan State, DaimlerChrysler Test Brownfields for Biofuel Crops

As record-high gas prices have given new life to the push for increased production of biofuels, more experts have questioned the impact the trend could have on the nation’s food production capacity. Seeking to avoid a tradeoff between alternative fuels and food production, researchers at Michigan State University, in partnership with DaimlerChrysler, are examining the possibility of turning  contaminated land, known as brownfields, into green pastures. NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization that develops energy technology, is also participating in the three-year study.

Dr. Kurt Thelen, a MSU professor of crop and soil sciences, is leading the study, which examines the potential of oilseed crops like soybeans, sunflower and canola. Those crops, and others like corn and switchgrass, can be cultivated on abandoned industrial sites for use in ethanol or biodiesel fuel production. Thelen’s research team has transformed a two-acre industrial dump site into a blossoming field, growing crops for research and for biofuel production. The success of that experiment could lead to similar sites across Michigan and the nation in areas that aren’t suitable for commercial or residential development.

“Right now, brownfields don’t grow anything,” Thelen says. “This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we’re looking at the possibilities of taking land that isn’t productive and using it to both learn and produce.”
Thelen’s research team is seeking to determine if brownfields can produce crops in large enough quantities to make them viable biofuel production sites. The study also hopes to determine whether the plants can remove contaminants from the soil, a process known as bioremediation. Many experts believe crops that contribute to bioremediation while remaining suitable for biofuel production would thrive in brownfields.

“Renewable fuels such as biodiesel can be a home-grown solution to our nation’s environmental, energy and economic challenges,” says Deborah Morrissett, vice president of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler. “This research project with Michigan State can make an important contribution toward reducing our nation’s reliance on oil.”

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