Abandoned industrial sites, commonly referred to as brownfields, blight the urban landscape with debris, dilapidated structures, and, frequently, contaminated soil. It is hard to picture anything thriving on brownfields except for the occasional dandelion, but Kurt Thelen, a crop and soil science professor at Michigan State University (MSU), predicts something better for these eyesores. Thelen is investigating growing corn, switchgrass, soybeans, and other oilseed crops on industrial land. He hopes his project will show that brownfields can become productive once more, growing crops that will be used for biofuels.

Thelen’s research site is a two-acre plot located on a former industrial dump in Oakland County, Michigan. The study has greater potential impact than just finding a new place for producing biofuels—it could lead to reclamation of brownfields and possibly may help to remediate contaminated soils. If he succeeds in finding crops that will grow sufficiently well, this project could ultimately lead to freeing up farm acreage that can be used for food crops.

“Right now our primary focus is on comparing various crops and evaluating whether they’ll yield well and produce quality biofuels on these marginal soils,” Thelen said. “Use of marginal lands or sites not preferable for food crops is a good idea. We’ll be looking at whether it is something that might offer multiple benefits.”

The supporting partners—DaimlerChrysler Corporation, MSU, and NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization that advocates energy technology development—anticipate that the study will lead to developing more of these sites for growing biofuel crops in a more efficient and effective manner.

DaimlerChrysler’s role in supporting the research continues the company’s commitment to promoting the use of biofuels in its diesel-powered vehicles. Its new 2007 Dodge Ram 2500/3500 series diesel trucks are leaving the factory fueled with B5, a blend containing five percent biodiesel made from soybeans grown in the United States. The company also offers the biodiesel-fueled Jeep Liberty CRD and the new 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD.

“Renewable fuels such as biodiesel can be a home-grown solution to our nation’s environmental, energy, and economic challenges,” said Deborah Morrissett, vice president of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler. “This research project with Michigan State can make an important contribution toward reducing our nation’s reliance on oil.”

While researchers are looking at crop varieties with good qualities for biofuel use, engineers are exploring better biofuel production systems. Currently there is no national standard specification for B20, a blend of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent petroleum diesel that is commonly used in diesel engines. The National Biodiesel Board is working with DaimlerChrysler and other automakers, suppliers, fuel refiners, and distributors to develop a national B20 standard that could dramatically increase the use of this renewable fuel.

DaimlerChrysler has also approved using B20 in the new Ram trucks for commercial, government, and military fleets using fuel that meets the military’s quality requirements. This test program will contribute toward finalization of the national standard for B20 fuel. MSU’s Thelen plans to be ready with recommendations for the best biofuel crop varieties when the standard is established.

“As the chemical engineers work on developing a national spec for B20, we’ll grow the crops in the marginal areas and see if they can meet it,” he said.

With more biofueled cars and trucks being offered by manufacturers, challenges related to growing feedstock are also increasing. Using brownfields for biofuel crops can ease some of the pressure related to the need for farmland for food rather than for fuel, and that is a good idea.

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