Cenusa Bioenergy receives $25 million grant from USDA

Kelly Madsen

The Iowa State University-led Cenusa Bioenergy project works to develop a biofuel with both a Midwestern and environmental focus.

Through a five-year, $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project will develop a holistic plan to create an advanced biofuel industry.

“We will use marginal farmlands to grow perennial grasses,” said Ken Moore, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of agriculture and life sciences and primary investigator on the project. “These native grasses — big bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass — will serve as the biomass sources for a drop in biofuel.”

Biomass from the grasses will be processed into bio-oil through pyrolysis, which is a conversion process currently being developed at Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute in collaboration with the Cenusa Bioenergy project.

“Interest in bio-oil is very high because it can be added directly to the U.S. gasoline delivery system,” Moore said. “It functions much like current transportation fuels [such as gasoline], but it will be produced from renewable resources.”

In addition, planting perennial grasses on marginal, or unsuitable for row crop, land has many environmental advantages. It can reduce soil and nutrient runoff, slow soil erosion, create native habitats and increase nutrient sequestration, Moore said.

Even though row crop is unsuitable and more costly to grow on marginal land, growing grasses currently has fewer benefits for farmers because there is not yet a developed industry, said Anne Kinzel, program director of the Bioeconomy Institute and Cenusa Bioenergy associate project director.

“In order to make this marketable and practical, we must make the industry attractive to Midwestern farmers,” Kinzel said.

Kinzel said the holistic and localized approach of the study helped warrant the USDA funding.

“The Cenusa Bioenergy project puts together all the critical research objectives for creating an entirely new advanced biofuels industry,” Moore said.

There are nine research objectives: feedstock development, sustainable production, feedstock logistics, system performance, feedstock conversion, markets and distribution, health and safety, education, extension and outreach.

“Over the next five years, we should be able to develop the knowledge and expertise necessary to create a fuel system for marginal lands in the Midwest,” Moore said. 

The study began in August 2011 and will be conducted in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, Idaho and Nebraska.

Agronomy, agricultural sciences or engineering undergraduate students are invited to apply for summer 2012 Cenusa Bioenergy research internship experience and work directly with this research program. Applications are due by March 30 and more information can be found at the Cenusa website.