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Testing diverse woody plants for biomass crops

Jan. 24, 2011, Urbana, IL – University of Illinois researchers are studying novel and traditional woody plants as short rotation crops for biomass production.

“Diversification of your plant materials for biomass production is sound from an ecological standpoint: A greater diversity of species minimizes the risk from serious disease or insect outbreaks that could threaten a large percentage of production when only a few species are utilized,” says Dr. Gary Kling, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, and one of eleven researchers collaborating on the study. He says there is a wealth of ecological niches and climatic zones where biomass may be produced someday, and likely a wide range of species that will be best adapted to these varying environments.

“The most commonly studied woody plant genus for biomass production (poplar) was selected for pulp production in the manufacture of paper,” Kling says. But he adds that characteristics that make a plant good for paper are not necessarily those that make a plant good for energy production. Plants for paper production are typically grown for 12 years before being harvested and replaced. However, for bioenergy repeated production is needed from the same plants over a much longer period of time, he says.

“We do not know how the various species, poplar and willows included, will respond to repeated cutting and production over a 30-plus-year production system,” he says.

The team of researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois selected plants for study based on their coppicing ability, adaptability to the environment, potential for biomass accumulation, non-invasive status, few major limiting pest and disease problems, availability, and inclusion in the U.S. Department of Agriculture database.

Kling says that woody plants offer many advantages as a feedstock for biofuel production. “Woody plants typically have a lower ash content when burned as compared to grasses, thus reducing the amount of waste generated. In addition, grasses usually have higher chlorine content than woody plants, which can be damaging to boilers.”

The plants chosen for the study include red maple, silver maple, thinleaf alder, river birch, hybrid chestnut, northern catalpa, common hackberry, bloodtwig dogwood, American filbert, American smoketree, possumhaw, American sweetgum, tuliptree, osage-orange, sycamore, eastern cottonwood, black cherry, scarlet oak, flameleaf sumac, black locust, and sherburne willow.

Two-year-old seedlings were planted in the spring of 2010 and will be grown for one to two seasons before cutting back to induce coppicing, Kling says. Then they will be grown for a three- to five-year harvest cycle. Researchers will collect growth and environmental data to determine if these woody plants can serve as short rotation crops for biomass production.


November 30, 1999
By Jennifer Shike | University of Illinois News

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