Poster Title: Plant species composition and biofuel yields of conservation grasslands
Authors: Paul Adler, Matt Sanderson, Paul Weimer, and Ken Vogel (USDA-ARS)
Poster Abstract: Marginal croplands, such as those in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), have been suggested as a source of biomass for biofuel production. However, little is known about the composition of plant species on these conservation grasslands or their potential for ethanol production. Our objective was to assess the potential of CRP and other conservation grasslands for biofuel production, describing the relationships of plant species richness and tall native C4 prairie grass abundance with plant chemical composition and the resulting potential ethanol yield. We determined plant species composition and diversity at multiple scales with the modified Whittaker plot technique, aboveground biomass, plant chemical composition, and potential ethanol yield at 34 sites across the major ecological regions of the northeastern USA. Conservation grasslands with higher numbers of plant species had lower biomass yields and a lower ethanol yield per unit biomass compared with sites with fewer species. Thus, biofuel yield per unit land area decreased by 77% as plant species richness increased from 3 to 12.8 species per m2. We found that as tall native C4 prairie grass abundance increased from 1.7 to 81.6%, the number of plant species decreased and aboveground biomass per unit land area and ethanol yield per unit biomass increased resulting in a 500% increased biofuel yield per unit land area. Plant species richness and composition are key determinants of biomass and ethanol yields from conservation grasslands and have implications for low-input high-diversity systems. Designing systems to include a large proportion of species with undesirable fermentation characteristics could reduce ethanol yields.