The greening of brownfields

man in baseball cap in fieldOn a 2-acre plot in northwestern Oakland County, Kurt Thelen (pictured at right), associate professor of crop and soil sciences, is growing soybeans, corn, canola and switchgrass. Nothing unusual about that - except that the 2 acres are part of the 110-acre Rose Township Dump site, designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Industrial waste sites are also known as brownfields. Thelen's research is exploring two intriguing possibilities: Can the site produce crops that have the quality and yield for biodiesel or ethanol production? And can the biofuel crops help clean up the contaminated soil?

The research project is a partnership between MSU, the DaimlerChrylser Corporation and NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization that supports alternative energy research and development. If the results are successful, similar plots might sprout across the state and the country on sites that are unsuitable for commercial or residential use.

"Right now, brownfields aren't productive and can be an eyesore for the local community," Thelen said. "We know we would need a lot of acres to produce the amount of biomass needed for biofuel production, so the scale-up of this research involves other types of agricultural lands that are marginal because of soil productivity, latitude and other limiting factors. This 2-acre site may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we're looking at the possibility of taking land that isn't productive and using it to both learn and produce. I know if I had a brownfield in my neighborhood, I'd prefer it be greened up and put to a productive use."

In 1998, when Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz AG to become DaimlerChrysler, the company became the largest producers of diesel engines in the world, according to Max Gates, DaimlerChrysler spokesperson.

"We want to promote the use of diesel and biodiesel as more efficient, environmentally friendly alternatives to gasoline and as a way to support the American economy," Gates said. "We knew that NextEnergy was studying renewable fuels, and we were very interested in what they were doing."

"NextEnergy was founded by the state to accelerate the research, development and commercialization of alternative energy in Michigan," said Jim Croce, NextEnergy chief executive officer.

Both groups would like to see national standards developed for what constitutes B20, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel, and they are providing data to government and private engineers who are working on the standards. As DaimlerChrysler and NextEnergy projects explored more efficient and effective biofuel production systems, researchers wanted to know how various crops functioned in these new systems. Because MSU is internationally known for its plant science work, the groups contacted the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station at MSU for help and were referred to Thelen.

"As the chemical engineers work on developing national specs for B20, we'll grow the crops in marginal areas and see if they can meet them," Thelen said. "We want to see if the brownfield environment affects crop yield or the quality of the biodiesel or ethanol produced from the crop."

"There are a number of feedstocks that can be used to make biofuels," said NextEnergy's Croce. "We need to know how each will fit in and comply with the national standard when it's developed."

"Biofuel production is going to require a significant land base to meet future production expectations," Thelen said. "Using marginal lands or sites that aren't preferable for food crops is a good idea that needs to be explored. Our hope is that it's something that can offer multiple benefits."