Energy potential and greenhouse gas emissions from bioenergy cropping systems on marginally productive cropland

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 4;9(3):e89501. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089501. eCollection 2014.


Low-carbon biofuel sources are being developed and evaluated in the United States and Europe to partially offset petroleum transport fuels. Current and potential biofuel production systems were evaluated from a long-term continuous no-tillage corn (Zea mays L.) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) field trial under differing harvest strategies and nitrogen (N) fertilizer intensities to determine overall environmental sustainability. Corn and switchgrass grown for bioenergy resulted in near-term net greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions of -29 to -396 grams of CO2 equivalent emissions per megajoule of ethanol per year as a result of direct soil carbon sequestration and from the adoption of integrated biofuel conversion pathways. Management practices in switchgrass and corn resulted in large variation in petroleum offset potential. Switchgrass, using best management practices produced 3919±117 liters of ethanol per hectare and had 74±2.2 gigajoules of petroleum offsets per hectare which was similar to intensified corn systems (grain and 50% residue harvest under optimal N rates). Co-locating and integrating cellulosic biorefineries with existing dry mill corn grain ethanol facilities improved net energy yields (GJ ha-1) of corn grain ethanol by >70%. A multi-feedstock, landscape approach coupled with an integrated biorefinery would be a viable option to meet growing renewable transportation fuel demands while improving the energy efficiency of first generation biofuels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biofuels*
  • Crops, Agricultural / drug effects
  • Crops, Agricultural / growth & development*
  • Gases / analysis*
  • Greenhouse Effect*
  • Nitrogen / pharmacology
  • Panicum / drug effects
  • Panicum / growth & development
  • Zea mays / drug effects
  • Zea mays / growth & development


  • Biofuels
  • Gases
  • Nitrogen

Grant support

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS) including funds from the USDA-ARS GRACEnet effort, and partly by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.