ISU builds farm for biomass development

By Susanne Retka Schill
Construction began this fall on Iowa State University's (ISU) New Century Farm, which has been designed to serve as a laboratory for developing and testing sustainable biomass systems. DuPont, through its subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., has pledged $1 million from 2008 to 2012 to help support research at the facility. ISU anticipates raising $2.6 million annually from external grants and contracts to support scientific investigations.

The first year's infrastructure developments currently underway are budgeted at $19 million, which will cover the construction, equipment and start-up costs of the biomass processing facility. A machinery workshop is being built for planting, harvesting and transporting machinery development. An on-site laboratory and a scale-up processing facility will be used for research and demonstration of biochemical and thermochemical pretreatments, and conversion platforms. The New Century Farm will include storage buildings for feedstocks, and production and harvesting equipment. Funds will also be used to install field equipment for long-term environmental monitoring of soil and water resources.

The farm will address several questions of importance for biorenewables, such as:

Crop production: What are the optimal biomass production systems? This will include work on species, crop rotations, nutrient and energy inputs, and management practices.

Germplasm development: Can selection and breeding improve conventional and alternative biomass crops, both herbaceous and woody?

Environmental impact: How can biomass production improve environmental quality, and what practices will ensure that biomass harvest won't compromise natural resources?

Harvest, transport and storage: What new equipment and technologies will enable the collection, storage and transportation of large amounts of biomass required for biorefineries?

Biomass processing: How will biochemical, thermochemical and hybrid technologies perform in converting biomass to fuels and biobased products? To what extent can processing byproducts be recycled through the system to minimize inputs to the agroecosystem and improve soil?

The New Century Farm is the first integrated and sustainable biofuel feedstock production system of its kind, according to ISU. The laboratory will be linked to molecular and traditional plant sciences, as well as advanced processing research. Basic and applied research will be conducted to achieve short-term and long-term advances in biorenewable fuels, and biobased products. The facility will also provide a venue for education and training, pulling together the research, teaching and extension functions at ISU.