Environmental Science Division (EVS)a Division of Argonne National Laboratory
Predictive environmental understanding

Controlling the harmful effects of farming with biomass buffers

August 26, 2019

As much as 40% of the earth's land is farmland; this figure will need to increase dramatically as the earth's population grows from its current count of 7.5 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050. Although humans have been farming for thousands of years, some agricultural practices remain remarkably inefficient, wasting precious resources and polluting both land and sea. EVS scientists, led by Cristina Negri, are investigating the use of bioenergy buffers, i.e., perennial biomass crops, to control some of the more harmful effects of current farming practices.

The EVS team's research focuses on the way bioenergy crops, such as willow and native prairie grasses, can reduce the impact of soil nutrients on water quality. Typically, excess nutrients (nitrates) in farmed soil make their way to surface water, causing euthrophication (excess nutrients), which leads to harmful algal blooms and ultimately massive fish kills, as seen in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrates that leach into groundwater are also harmful and increase the treatment costs of drinking water. Bioenergy crops can intercept nutrients in the subsurface, preventing their movement offsite, and these nutrients are a fertilizer source that enhances biomass production. Bioenergy crops also provide other ecosystem services, such as reducing soil erosion and sedimentation, improving air quality (by reducing greenhouse gas emissions), and providing additional wildlife habitat. And willows can be used in the production of biofuels and other bioproducts.

Much of this research is conducted on a 16-acre corn and soybean field in Fairbury, Illinois, about 90 miles south of Argonne. During the growing season, the EVS team measures crop productivity, nutrient leaching, and greenhouse gas emissions at least biweekly to compare areas where bioenergy crops are used with those areas where such crops are not used. The team's main goal is to promote the sustainable growth of bioenergy crops in a way that is protective of the environment, but also financially appealing to farmers.

Read the Argonne feature story by Jo Napolitano.

Study site near Fairbury, Illinois, located in the Indian Creek watershed, about 90 miles south of Argonne National Laboratory.
Study site near Fairbury, Illinois, located in the Indian Creek watershed, about 90 miles south of Argonne National Laboratory. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]
Argonne field manager Colleen Zumpf instructs her team of interns on plans for the day’s research at the test farm in Fairbury, Ill.
Argonne field manager Colleen Zumpf instructs her team of interns on plans for the day’s research at the test farm in Fairbury, Ill. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]
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portrait of M. Cristina Negri