Researchers are studying novel and traditional woody plants as short rotation crops for biomass production to help diversify and expand bioenergy research efforts at the University of Illinois.

“Diversification of your plant materials for biomass production is sound from an ecological standpoint — a greater diversity of species minimizes the risk from serious disease or insect outbreaks that could threaten a large percentage of production when only a few species are utilized,” said Gary Kling, an associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, at the 2011 Bioenergy Feedstocks Symposium at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

Kling said there is a wealth of ecological niches and climatic zones where biomass may be produced someday, and likely a wide range of species that will be best adapted to these varying environments.

“The most commonly studied woody plant genus for biomass production (poplar) was selected for pulp production in the manufacture of paper,” Kling said. “Characteristics that make a good paper plant are not necessarily the same as those needed for energy production.”

Plants selected for paper production are typically grown for 12 years before being harvested and replaced. In the bioenergy industry, he said that repeated production is needed from the same plants over a much longer period of time.

“We do not know how the various species, poplar and willows included, will respond to repeated cutting and production over a 30-plus-year production system,” he said. “It is doubtful the early selection work done for paper production included as wide a range as we are considering — the early selection efforts may have easily missed a superior species. “