Growing energy: comparing biofuel crop biomass

The activities are as follows:GLBRC1

Most of us use fossil fuels every day. Fossil fuels power our cars, heat and cool our homes, and are used to produce most of the things we buy. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they are made from plants and animals that grew hundreds of millions of years ago. After these species died, their tissues were slowly converted into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that they are limited and nonrenewable. It takes a long time for dead plants and animals to be converted into fossil fuels. Once we run out of the supply we have on Earth today, we are out! We need to think of new ways to power our world now that we use more energy than ever.

Biofuels are made from the tissues of plants that are alive and growing today. When plants are harvested, their tissues, called biomass, can be converted into fuel. Biofuels are renewable, meaning we can produce them as quickly as we use them up. At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center sites in Wisconsin and Michigan, scientists and engineers are attempting to figure out which plants make the best biofuels.

GLBRC2

Gregg is a scientist who wants to find out how much plant biomass can be harvested from different crops like corn, grasses, weeds, and trees. The bigger and faster a plant grows, the more biomass they make. The more biomass the more fuel can be produced. Gregg is interested in maximizing how much biomass we can produce while also not harming the environment. Each plant species comes with a tradeoff – some may be good at growing big, but need lots of inputs like fertilizer and pesticide. Corn is an annual, meaning it only lives for one year. Corn is one of the best crops for producing a lot of biomass. However, farmers must add a lot of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their fields to plant corn every year. These chemicals harm the environment and cost farmers money. Other plants harvested for biofuels, like switchgrass, prairie species, poplar trees, and Miscanthus grass are perennials. Perennials grow back year after year without replanting. Perennials require much less chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. If perennials can produce high levels of biomass with low levels of soil nutrients, perhaps a perennial crop could replace corn as the best biofuel crop.

Gregg out in the GLBRC

Gregg out in the WI experimental farm.

To test this hypothesis, scientists worked together to design a very large experiment. Gregg and his team grew multiple plots of six different biofuel crops on experimental farms in Wisconsin and Michigan. The soils at the Wisconsin site are more fertile and have more nutrients than the soils at the Michigan site. At each farm, they grew plots of corn to be compared to the growth of plants in five types of perennial plots. The types of perennial plots they planted were: switchgrass, Miscanthus grass, poplar saplings (trees), a mix of prairie species, and weedy fields. Every fall the scientists harvested, dried, and then weighed the biomass from each plot. They continued taking measurements for five years and then calculated the average biomass production in a year for each plot type at each site.

Featured scientist: Dr. Gregg Sanford from University of Wisconsin-Madison

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

This Data Nugget was adapted from a data analysis activity developed by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). For a more detailed version of this lesson plan, including a supplemental reading, biomass harvest video and extension activities, click here.

This lesson can be paired with The Science of Farming research story to learn a bit more about the process of designing large-scale agricultural experiments that need to account for lots of variables.

For a classroom reading, click here to download an article written for the public on these research findings. Click here for the scientific publication. For more bioenergy lesson plans by the GLBRC, check out their education page.

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

Aerial view of GLBRC KBS LTER cellulosic biofuels research experiment; Photo Credit: KBS LTER, Michigan State University

As a hook before beginning the Data Nugget, students can watch the following video for an introduction to biofuels:

For more photos of the GLBRC site in Michigan, click here.

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Is chocolate for the birds?

Cocoa beans used to make chocolate!

Cocoa beans used to make chocolate!

The activities are as follows:

About 9,000 years ago humans invented agriculture as a way to grow enough food for people to eat. Today, agriculture happens all over the globe and takes up 40% of Earth’s land surface. To make space for our food, humans must clear large areas of land, which creates a drastic change, or disturbance, to the habitat. This land-clearing disturbance removes the native plants already there including trees, small flowering plants, and grasses. Many types of animals including mammals, birds, and insects depend on these native plants for food or shelter. Large scale disturbances can make it difficult to live in the area. For example, a woodpecker bird cannot live somewhere that has no trees because they live and find their food in the trees.

However, some agriculture might help some animals because they can use the crops being grown for the food and shelter they need to survive. One example is the cacao tree, which grows in the rainforests of South America. Humans use the seeds of this plant to make chocolate, so it is a very important crop, especially if you like chocolate! Cacao trees need very little light. They grow best in a unique habitat called the forest understory, which is composed of the shorter trees and bushes under the large trees found in rainforests. To get a lot of cacao seeds for chocolate, farmers need to have large rainforest trees above their cacao trees for shade. In many ways, cacao farms resemble a native rainforest. Many native plant species grow there and there are still taller tree species. However, these farms are different in important ways from a native rainforest. For example, there are many more cacao trees on the farm than are found in native rainforests. Also, there are fewer small flowering plants on the ground because humans that work on cacao farms trample them as they walk around the farm.

rainforest and cacao plantation

Part I: Skye is a biologist who wanted to know how, if at all, rainforest birds use the forest when the forest understory plants are replaced with cacao farms. If the birds see the cacao farm habitat as similar enough to the native tropical forest understory, one thing Skye thought she would see is a similar abundance of birds in both habitats. To begin, she simply counted birds in each habitat. Skye chose one rainforest and one cacao farm and set up two transects in each. She spent four days counting birds along each transect, for a total of eight days in each habitat. She had to get up really early and count birds between 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning because that’s when they are most active.

Part II: Skye was shocked to see so many birds in cacao farms! She decided to take a closer look at her data. Skye wanted to know how the types of birds she saw in the cacao farms compared to the types of birds she saw in the rainforest. She predicted that cacao farms would have different types of birds than the undisturbed rainforest. She thought the bird types would differ because each habitat has different types of food available for birds to eat and different types of plants for birds to live in.

Skye broke her abundance data down to look more closely at four types of birds:

  1. Toucans (Eat: large insects and fruit from large trees, Live: holes in large trees)
  2. Hummingbirds (Eat: nectar from flowers, Live: tree branches and leaves)
  3. Wrens (Eat: small insects, Live: small shrubs on the forest floor)
  4. Flycatchers (Eat: Small insects, Live: tree branches and leaves)

skyecacao

Featured scientist: Skye Greenler from Colorado College and Purdue University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.5

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • The research described in this activity has been published. The citation and a PDF of the scientific paper can be found here:
  • The complete dataset for the study has been published to a data repository and is available for classroom use. This dataset has even more data than what is in the Data Nugget activity. While the Data Nugget has data for just two habitats (cacao and rainforest), the full dataset also includes two other agroforest habitat types. The dataset also includes data for every species (169) recorded during the study, whereas the Data Nugget only has data for four families (toucans, wrens, flycatchers, hummingbirds).
  • Study Location: Skye’s study took place in a 10 km2 mixed rainforest, pasture, agro-forest, and monoculture landscape near the village of Pueblo Nuevo de Villa Franca de Guácimo, Limón Province, Costa Rica (10˚20˝ N, 83˚20˝ W), in the Caribbean lowlands 85 km northeast of San José.

About Skye: As a child Skye was always asking why; questioning the behavior, characteristics, and interactions of plants and animals around her.  She spent her childhood reconstructing deer skeletons to understand how bones and joints functioned and creating endless mini-ecosystems in plastic bottles to watch how they changed over time.  This love of discovery, observation, questioning, and experimentation led her to many technician jobs, independent research projects, and graduate research study at Purdue University.  At Purdue she studies the factors influencing oak regeneration after ecologically based timber harvest and prescribed fire.  While Skye’s primary focus is ecological research, she loves getting to leave the lab and bring science into classrooms to inspire the next generation of young scientists and encourage all students to be always asking why!

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Fair traders or freeloaders?

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

The activities are as follows:

When two species do better when they cooperate than they would on their own, the relationship is called a mutualism. One example of a mutualism is the relationship between a type of bacteria, rhizobia, and legume plants. Legumes include plants like peas, beans, soybeans, and clover. Rhizobia live in bumps on the legume roots, where they trade their nitrogen for sugar from the plants. Rhizobia fix nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This means that legumes that have rhizobia living in their roots can get more nitrogen than those that don’t.

Under some conditions, this mutualism can break down. For example, if one of the traded resources is very abundant in the environment. When the plant doesn’t need the nitrogen traded by rhizobia, it doesn’t trade as many sugars to the rhizobia. This could cause the rhizobia to evolve to be less cooperative as well. Less-cooperative rhizobia may be found where the soil already has lots of nitrogen. These less-cooperative bacteria are freeloaders: they fix less nitrogen, but still get sugars from the plant and other benefits of living in nodules on their roots.

Photo by Tomomi Suwa, 2013

Rhizobia nodules on plant roots. In exchange for carbon and protection in the nodules from plants, rhizobia provide fixed nitrogen for plants.

One very important legume crop species is the soybean. Soybeans are used to produce vegetable oil, tofu, soymilk, and many other food products. Soybeans trade with rhizobia for nitrogen, but often farmers add more nitrogen into the field as fertilizer. Since farms use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, researchers at KBS were interested in how different types of farming affected the plant-rhizobia mutualism.

They grew soybean plants in a greenhouse and added rhizobia from three different farms: a high N farm, low N farm, and organic farm that used no N fertilizer. After four weeks, the researchers measured chlorophyll content of the soybean plants. Healthy plants that have lots of nitrogen will have high chlorophyll content, and plants with not enough nitrogen will have low chlorophyll content. Because high nitrogen could lead to the evolution of less-cooperative rhizobia, they expected that rhizobia from organic plots would be most cooperative. They predicted rhizobia from high N plots would be the least cooperative, and rhizobia from low N plots would fall somewhere in the middle. More-cooperative rhizobia provide more nitrogen, so the researchers expected plants grown with cooperative rhizobia to have higher chlorophyll content than plants receiving less-cooperative rhizobia.

Featured scientist: REU Jennifer Schmidt from the Kellogg Biological Station

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

For more information on the evolution of cheating rhizobia, check out these popular science articles:

If you are interested in performing your own classroom experiment using the plant-rhizobium mutualism, check out this paper published in the American Biology Teacher describing methods and a proposed experimental design: Suwa and Williamson 2014