Clemson receives grant to research crops for energy use

A new public-private partnership led by Clemson University and a worldwide biomass and bioenergy producer will research the use of crops that can both open new markets for South Carolina, US landowners and support the growing global demand for renewable energy.

In forming the Carolina Energy Crop Alliance, Abengoa Energy Crops has committed more than $1 million (€900,000) annually to support a three-year research project in South Carolina on the use of different trees and grass-like species to produce sustainable biomass for energy. The alliance will include scientists and educators from a number of state and federal agencies, as well as several private enterprises.

'The more crop and tree options we are able to combine for biomass production, the more productive and sustainable it will be,' says Fabian Capdevielle, R&D manager for Abengoa Energy Crops. 'Field research is needed to evaluate where both limitations and opportunities exist for these new crops.'

The field research will be based at the Pee Dee REC but will include activities throughout South Carolina's Coastal Plain.
The alliance will focus on five primary research and education areas: sustainability of feedstock production; genetic development of new tree feedstocks; silviculture trials to analyse forest health; analysis of the management, harvest and storage of grass-type feedstocks; and landowner and public education programmes.

Alliance partners include Honda of South Carolina Manufacturing, which is leasing land to Clemson to conduct agricultural research; ArborGen, which is providing trees for testing; and NexSteppe, which will collaborate on the development of new biomass sorghum hybrids for the region.

The alliance also has an advisory board of leaders representing interests in the environment, economic development, energy, agriculture and forestry.

Lead by Clemson professor James Frederick, researchers will evaluate switchgrass and biomass sorghum at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center. The project also will include test plots to analyse different varieties of cottonwood, sweetgum and other hardwood species, as well as selected conifer trees, as sources of bioenergy. It will provide insight into how energy crops could affect soil health, air and water quality, and biodiversity. Crops and trees will be studied for potential combustion as an alternative to coal and for conversion to liquid biofuels, such as ethanol.

'Many of these crops and trees are more suited than traditional food crops for production on the marginal, sandy soils common to the Coastal Plain. Feedstocks grown for bioenergy are thought to have many beneficial characteristics, such as high yield potential, good drought tolerance, a source of wildlife habitat, low input costs and capacity to be produced using traditional farming and forestry equipment,' Frederick says. 'The overall goal of this three-year study is to test new hybrids and genotypes of different tree species and grass-type feedstocks for productivity and environmental sustainability in the Southeast.'

The Pee Dee REC is one of Clemson's five agricultural research centres in South Carolina. It conducts applied research and outreach on row crops with an emphasis on new plant technologies.

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