Purdue University researchers will use a portion of a $25 million grant to determine the potential of grasses as environmentally responsible bioenergy crops and to educate farmers and others about the findings.

More than a dozen Purdue scientists will receive $3.8 million for their work, which is part of the $25 million U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to Iowa State University. The goal is to create production systems that will give growers information on how to maximize bioenergy grass growth on marginal or unused farmland that isn't optimal for other crops.

"We need data to inform the food-vs.-fuel debate. In addition, we need to improve our understanding of the potential environmental impacts of growing new bioenergy crops," said Jeff Volenec, a Purdue professor of agronomy. "At its core, this is about knowledge to make good choices."

Sylvie Brouder, a Purdue professor of agronomy, said agronomic researchers would work with modelers to create models so that farmers could predict how biofuel grass crops might grow on their land. Often, marginal land is not farmed because it could be prone to flooding or soil could have insufficient nutrients to produce traditional corn and soybean crops.

"Putting a traditional annual crop on these soils is a high-risk endeavor for a farmer. Planting corn or soybeans could have a large environmental footprint," Brouder said. "This will give us critical information to understand the potential to produce sufficient energy with these crops that won't be competing with food."

Purdue also will be involved in educational and Extension components of the projects.

Patrick Murphy, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said course modules based on the findings would be developed and inserted into undergraduate classes. Undergraduates will have internship opportunities to participate in the research as well.

"The university education program is an opportunity to make biofuels appealing to a broader range of students through classes they're already taking," Murphy said.

Two-week intensive seminars on the research - including all aspects from the genetics of the grasses through production, distribution and marketing of biofuels - will be developed. Graduate students will give online seminars discussing their work with the project.

Kathryn Orvis, an associate professor of youth development and agriculture education and horticulture and landscape architecture, said curriculum would be developed to educate 4-H Youth and Master Gardeners. Demonstration gardens will be created to disseminate information about the findings to communities across Indiana. Extension educators throughout the country will be given information about the findings so it can be distributed to farmers who might be able to better use marginal lands.

"We want to bring that information to children and the community so that we can increase public awareness of biofuels," Orvis said.

Much of the program work is already under way, Volenec said, because the grant is built on efforts already begun at Purdue and other partner institutions. The grant funds the work through 2016.

Other Purdue researchers involved in the project include: Ron Turco, a professor of agronomy; Indrajeet Chaubey, a professor of ecohydrology; Keith Johnson, a professor of agronomy; Nicole Olynk, an assistant professor of agricultural economics; Corinne Alexander, an associate professor of agricultural economics; Natalie Carroll, a professor of youth development and agriculture education; Rosie Lerner, an Extension horticulturist; Linda Prokopy, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources; and Chad Martin, a renewable energy Extension specialist.

Source: Purdue University