A University of Missouri (MU) researcher believes soggy river bottoms could be untapped grounds for advanced biofuel production.

Shibu Jose, director for MU’s Center for Agroforestry, is proposing that biomass crops be grown and harvested along the flood plains of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He says converting less than 1% of the 116 million acres of “marginally productive” cropland on the flood plains could create a corridor of sustainable biomass and biofuel production.

Food crops planted there – typically corn and soybeans – are prone to failure because of flooding and soil erosion. Jose’s proposal involves replacing those crops with seven types of plants: cottonwood and willow trees, switchgrass and miscanthus grass, energy cane, and sweet and biomass sorghum.

All except sorghum are perennials, so farmers wouldn't have to replant year after year.

Jose says this is perhaps the most productive use of some of the flood plains.

“If you plant the trees or grasses, it keeps the soil in place for 10, 15, 20 years,” he says. “Even if there is a flood, they stay in place.”

But he believes the project also represents a more realistic approach to expanding the advanced biofuel economy, which has been stymied by financial shortfalls and unrealistic expectations. The backbone of the proposal lies in a marriage of environmentally sound land usage and economics. Refineries are currently able to convert just about anything pulled out of the ground into fuel, he says.

“The technology is there, but no one is producing advanced biofuel at a commercial level," says Jose.

He’s leading the development of a consortium in the biomass and biofuel industry. More than 50 partners are on board representing every major segment in the supply chain, from education to production to consumption.

Under Jose’s plan, area farmers would cultivate and harvest one or more of the proposed crops. Small rural biorefineries would then collect the biomass, grind the feedstock and make pellets or extract sugar out of them. The product would then ship to "hubs," larger plants that ferment the pellets into electricity or biofuel, such as butanol, green diesel and jet fuel.