Satellite data aids biofuel feedstocks research

By Erin Voegele
NASA researchers are completing a study that aims to predict the agricultural productivity of land in the Midwest that is being converted from traditional cropland to biofuel feedstock production. Christopher Potter, a research scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, and his colleagues presented preliminary findings of the biofuels crop research at an American Geophysical Union meeting Dec. 19.

To complete the research, Potter and his colleagues are using satellite imagery data collected by NASA. The satellite images are used to make observations regarding vegetative cover on croplands, and to map aboveground and subsurface carbon pools. The data allows the researchers to track the amount of cropland that is being dedicated to crops that can be used as biofuels feedstocks, such as corn, soybeans and switchgrass. Potter said his team aims to determine how much of a particular crop is being produced on an acre-by-acre basis and how many new acres of each crop are being planted each year.

To measure these aspects of crop production, Potter said researchers typically deal with statistics collected by county agencies. However, these statistics provide only a rough map of where the most productive croplands are located. Potter's research should provide a clearer picture. "With the satellite imagery, we can see individual plots and how they are producing," he said. "That gives a big advantage in understanding within a county where the best areas seem to be for generating high yields and sustaining those yields through several different kinds of years."

The data mined from the satellite images is fed into a computer model, which will be able to simulate the effects of feedstock production on soil, taking into account biomass sources such as corn stover that are harvested rather than left in the field. Potter said the research alone won't be enough to identify what percentage of each crop is planted for use as a biofuels feedstock. In order to make that determination, researchers would have to team up with economists and market analysts, who would bring in additional statistics.

The research will produce an accurate estimate of the amount of land being brought into production each year and what kinds of crops are being grown on it. The team is analyzing satellite data spanning from 2000 to the present. The first stage of research is slated to be complete near the end of 2009.