So what if money doesn’t grow on trees? Researchers at Cornell University have set out to prove that biofuel can grow on willow shrubs, and if their current project bears out,… well you can take that to the bank.
As a commercially viable biofuel crop, shrub willows could put more than one million acres of underused land into production in New York State alone, providing farmers with a new, low-maintenance cash crop while pumping out renewable fuel, too.
A long and winding road for shrub willow biofuel
As with all woody biofuel crops, shrub willow has been facing some stiff obstacles in terms of commercial biofuel production. The primary goal of the research team has been to develop a species of willow shrub that can produce high yields on marginal land, and that project has been going on since 1998.
That’s nothing, according to Cornell researcher Larry Smart. Cited in a recent article by writer Sarah Thompson, he mentioned that “determining the precise genetic mechanisms that produce hybrid vigor has been a scientific challenge for a century.”
Fortunately, things began to heat up earlier this year with $950,000 in new funds for the breeding program from Cornell’s Northeast Sun Grant Institute, along with installation of a new boiler to heat two buildings at the school’s campus in upstate New York. The boiler will burn shrub willow biofuel produced on the campus.
The Sun Grant Institute is partly funded by federal agencies, which came through again last month with a grant of $1.37 million to study the yield and vigor of shrub willow hybrid. That research will leverage new information from the plant’s newly mapped genome.
Shrub willow biofuel and fracking
Aside from demonstrating that shrub willow for biofuel can be a viable cash crop, the new boilers will help show farmers that shrub willow cultivation is also an economical way to produce biofuel for use on the farm.
In that regard, the shrub willow program is part of a broader effort by Cornell and New York State to develop non-fossil fuel resources within the state’s borders. As with the state’s dairy farm biogas initiatives, the goal is to enable property owners to extract more cash from their land in a sustainable way, rather than leasing land for potentially harmful uses such as fracking operations (fracking is a natural gas drilling method that involves pumping chemical brine underground).
The fracking issue is a particularly urgent one for New York State, since upstate reservoirs located in rural areas provide virtually all of the drinking water for New York City, and for a number of upstate communities.
Water contamination from fracking is the main concern. The propensity of fracking to cause earthquakes is also a major concern for New York’s sprawling reservoir system, which involves enormous reservoirs and hundreds of miles of aqueducts.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.