Thelen Named First MSU Bioenergy Crop Agronomist

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Kurt Thelen, bioenergy crop agronomist, has begun analyzing crop components for energy quality. (view larger image)

As the state’s interest in growing field crops for fuel and energy has increased, MSU agronomist Kurt Thelen’s research has followed suit. In addition to studying how to grow corn, canola and soybeans for maximum yield with minimal environmental impact, he began analyzing crop components for energy quality and looking at fatty acid profiles in relation to potential biofuel production. He also began studying whether marginal land—land that couldn’t be used to grow food crops—could be used to grow bioenergy crops.

On Jan. 1, Thelen’s title changed from cropping systems agronomist to bioenergy crop agronomist in formal recognition of his research focus on bioenergy crops.

“I’m very excited to start, but my research program won’t change dramatically,” he said. “We’ll begin more intensive agronomic studies of some other bioenergy crops, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, in addition to corn, canola and soybeans. We’ll also begin researching new energy crops that haven’t been studied in Michigan before, such as camelina, which is a type of canola.”

In addition to focusing on maximum yield, Thelen will study growing methods that produce maximum energy output for a crop. For the spring 2009 semester, Thelen also will begin teaching a new undergraduate class on bioenergy crop production.

In his new role, Thelen will be making significant contributions to the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), the $125 million Department of Energy-funded research facility that is a partnership between MSU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thelen is the team leader for the GLBRC research area evaluating novel bioenergy crop production systems. As plant breeders develop new varieties of energy crops, Thelen and his research team will conduct field research under a variety of Michigan conditions. Because many potential energy crops, including switchgrass and miscanthus, haven’t been cultivated to maximize biofuel yield, basic agronomic information is lacking, and Thelen plans to fill that void.

“I like working with farmers, and my new role will still have a significant outreach component,” Thelen said. “One of the goals is to get research results on bioenergy crops out to growers as soon as possible.”

“If Michigan is going to be a player in the bioeconomy, we must be able to grow energy crops efficiently,” said Steve Pueppke, director of the Office of Biobased Technologies and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station. “We’re very pleased that Kurt is willing to use his expertise to tackle this key problem.”

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