Biomass crops slated for ethanol production are gaining research dollars as scientists use precision agriculture remote sensing to study the issues and logistics of getting crops from field production to the biorefinery gate.
A lot has to happen to a plant from the time it first captures sunlight in a field to being dispensed as fuel at the pump. For corn-to-ethanol, that path is fairly predictable, but for energy crops such as Miscanthus or switchgrass the journey is still through somewhat uncharted territory.
“There’s not as much information on energy crops as we have on corn and soybeans and wheat and cotton. So we have to build on those past successes and learn,” said University of Illinois agricultural engineer K.C. Ting.
“Energy crops like Miscanthus cut differently; a corn harvester cannot be used to harvest energy crops. Maybe the closest comparison is hay, but that’s not a perfect comparison either.”
Ting is leading a team of Illinois researchers in a program funded by the energy firm BP in the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) — a partnership between the University of California-Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory, and the University of Illinois.
“In the pre-harvest crop monitoring, we look at how precision agriculture, remote sensing, can be used to help growers understand how to manage these new crops,” Ting said. “Even harvesting has several steps: you have to detach it, you have to gather it, collect it, and resize it. Then you may have to either bale it or compact it. You have to load and unload many times from the field to the biorefinery. And in between you may need to store it. Sometimes the harvest window is small, but biorefineries need a year-long supply of constant high-quantity material. We have to find ways to keep it for a whole year in storage.”
Researchers at the University of Illinois use a variety of techniques for pre-harvest crop monitoring. A tower over a hundred of feet high with a multi-spectral camera watches over four nine-acre plots to study the health of the crop, a small unmanned helicopter can fly over crops to acquire images, and a cube-shaped frame with sensors is moved slowly across the crops. “Using these precision agriculture methods, we can help growers monitor crop growth, detect problem areas, and suggest what they need to do. With cotton, if you take an image, you can tell whether it is suffering from drought or insect or disease. But energy crops are so new, there’s minimum data,” said Ting.