Cotton acres converted to energy crops subject of new research

By Luke Geiver | June 06, 2012

A team of researchers working for Texas AgriLife Research of Texas A&M University are working to determine what happens when acres traditionally planted with cotton are converted for energy crop production.

Led by Nitha Rajan, an agronomist, the team also includes a hydrologist and an air quality scientist, all of whom will analyze how changing cotton acres in the southwestern Cotton Belt to crops like switchgrass or biomass sorghum will affect the carbon balance, hydrologic cycle or the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the acres, according to Texas AgriLife Research.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the project with a $500,000 grant that will allow the team to test the converted acres for three years. The team is also working in collaboration with a Texas Tech University micrometeorologist, Stephen Mass, to monitor carbon dioxide and water flux in individual fields using eddy covariance flux instruments. Mass will place flux towers in selected fields of cotton, switchgrass or sorghum for testing. With his data, the school said regarding the research methods, the team will tie in satellite remote-sensing scaling methods and modeling for regional scale assessments. Greenhouse gas testing will be done using collection chambers implanted in the ground of selected fields.

Rajan believes the newly planted energy crops will reduce the negative environmental effects currently associated with conventional, intensely managed cropping systems used in the region. “Through our research efforts, we expect to provide a comparison of the environmental impacts associated with land-use change to second generation biofuel feedstock,” she said.

By the end of three year, Rajan said, the team will be able to provide regional assessments of the sustainability of the bioenergy cropping systems under current and possible future climate conditions, and, she added, the study will also provide an assessment of the planting changes on the hydrological and biogeochemical processes occurring in the region, she added.