Soil Incubation Experiments for Cellulosic Biofuel Production

About the Project

Soil Incubation Experiments to Inform a Strategy for Cellulosic Biofuel Production that Avoids Land Competition and Enhances Soil Health
Principal Investigators: Assistant Professor Caitlin Hicks Pries (Biological Sciences) and Professor Lee Lynd (Engineering)
Project Team: Michelle Wang (student); Sarah Goldsmith (staff, Biological Sciences)

Project Abstract: The world produces over 100 EJ of inedible crop residues that if converted to liquid biofuels could satisfy the majority of global demand for difficult-to-electrify, carbon-neutral transport. Current analyses of cellulosic liquid biofuel production assume the resulting high-lignin fermentation with this assumption is that soil carbon and nutrients are depleted relative to leaving the crop residues on the field. We hypothesize that such depletion could be avoided, and net agricultural benefits achieved, if the HLFB were instead returned to the soil. To inform this hypothesis, which has potential to turn the "food vs fuel" debate on its head, we propose the first experimental study on the fate of HLFB from liquid biofuel production in agricultural soils. We will use controlled laboratory incubations to compare soil carbon and nutrient levels in soils with added HLFB from different biofuel production processes and with added corn stover. We will then use a model to scale up our results and project the effects of returning HLFB to different soil types and in different climates. This project will support a master's student and has outstanding potential to seed additional funding.