NASA-funded study may help biofuels producers

By Hope Deutscher | February 05, 2008
Web exclusive posted Feb. 5, 2008, at 3:27 p.m. CST

Scientists at South Dakota State University's Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence have received a $738,000 grant from NASA to study the impact that agricultural crops have on the weather and climate prediction models.

With increased interest in cellulosic ethanol production, some farmers are considering perennial grasses such as switchgrass rather than corn or soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel production. There are a variety of factors that can change the seasonal cycle of water and energy exchanges between the land and the lower portion of the atmosphere. For example, perennial grasses use more water in the early stages of their growing season than corn or soybean plants.

The three-year study will focus on land use in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, western Minnesota and northern Iowa. Preliminary results should be available in 12 to 24 months, said Geoffrey Henebry, an SDSU professor and senior scientist at the center. "If you look at one of the maps by the Renewable Fuels Association, the hotspot of the activity is in this area," Henebry said. "What we're trying to do is make some broad but reasonable assumptions about some possible future landscapes and how those may affect the weather. At this point, we don't have any foregone conclusions. We're right at the beginning of the study, and we can see from past studies looking at the interactions of different land cover and regional weather that there are some influences. It is not a foregone conclusion that things will move one way or another particularly because we're not operating on the assumption that all possible land is going to be transformed into switchgrass but rather that there will be a fairly heterogeneous mix."

The main focus of the study is to help improve a computer model's representation of the interaction of the land surface and the lower part of the atmosphere. "That will help with weather prediction on the one hand and climate prediction on the other, and the enhanced understanding of the various processes going on in the region," Henebry said. "We have no political stake in the things that are going on or any particular angle that we are looking at."