MSU researchers find perennial biofuel crops and corn have comparable water use
A recent study from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and published in Environmental Research Letters looks at how efficiently “second generation” biofuel crops – perennial, non-food crops such as switchgrass or native grasses – use rainwater and how these crops affect overall water balance.
The study, led by Michigan State University professor of ecosystem ecology and GLBRC scientist Stephen Hamilton, is the first multi-year effort to compare the water use of conventional corn crops to the perennial cropping systems of switchgrass, miscanthus, native grasses, restored prairies and hybrid poplar trees.
“When we established the different cropping systems in 2008,” Hamilton said, “we installed soil-water sensors at various depths through the root zone. We’ve been continuously monitoring the soil water content ever since.”
Hamilton’s team reports that the perennial system’s evapotranspiration did not differ greatly from corn – a finding that contrasts sharply with earlier studies that found particularly high perennial water use in areas with high water tables. Hamilton’s study, however, took place in Michigan’s temperate humid climate and on the kind of well-drained soil characteristic of marginal farming land.
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