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Study finds removing corn residue for biofuel production can decrease soil organic carbon and increase CO2 emissions; may miss mandated 60% GHG reduction

Contribution of modeled CO2 emissions from SOC to the life cycle of biofuel from corn residue. Error bars are ± one standard deviation. Liska et al. Click to enlarge.

Using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and under some conditions can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a major, multi-year study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team of researchers published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The findings cast doubt on whether biofuels produced from corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates for cellulosic biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 60% compared to gasoline.

The study, led by assistant professor Adam Liska, was funded through a three-year, $500,000-grant from the US Department of Energy, and used carbon dioxide measurements taken from 2001 to 2010 to validate a soil carbon model that was built using data from 36 field studies across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Using USDA soil maps and crop yields, they extrapolated potential carbon dioxide emissions across 580 million 30-meter by 30-meter geospatial cells in Corn Belt states.

Changes in SOC
Changes in SOC occur via two dominant processes: soil erosion by water and wind; and soil respiration where SOC is oxidized to CO2. Crop residue conventionally has been left on the field after harvest to reduce soil erosion and maintain the SOC stocks and soil fertility of the Corn Belt.
Liska et al. note that accurately measuring SOC change is limited due to high spatial variability in SOC stocks, inability to detect a small annual percentage change, short-term studies, and failure to express SOC results in an equivalent mass basis to account for changes in soil bulk density. Furthermore, when crop residue is removed, it is essential to determine whether SOC loss is due to erosion or respiration, to accurately estimate the resulting net CO2 emissions.

A massive amount of data was used to produce the results. Liska and his colleagues analyzed the data using high-performance computer clusters in the Holland Computing Center (HCC) at University of Nebraska-Lincoln that employ parallel programs to speed up computation. The uncompressed input data totalled ∼3 terabytes (TB) and the uncompressed output data totalled > 30 TB.

The program split each state’s input file into ∼40 megabyte (MB) files, and then executed computations on the smaller files in parallel. The output files were then joined together in a single state file, for each of the 12 states. If input files had not been split, the computational speed would have been significantly reduced owing to opening and closing of files and because loading an entire large disk file into memory at once is infeasible.

Removal of corn residue for biofuels can decrease soil organic carbon (SOC) and increase CO2 emissions because residue C in biofuels is oxidized to CO2 at a faster rate than when added to soil. Net CO2 emissions from residue removal are not adequately characterized in biofuel life cycle assessment (LCA). Here we used a model to estimate CO2 emissions from corn residue removal across the US Corn Belt at 580 million geospatial cells. To test the SOC model, we compared estimated daily CO2 emissions from corn residue and soil with CO2 emissions measured using eddy covariance with 12% average error over nine years.

The model estimated residue removal of 6 Mg per ha−1 yr−1 over five to ten years could decrease regional net SOC by an average of 0.47–0.66 Mg C ha−1 yr−1. These emissions add an average of 50–70 g CO2 per megajoule of biofuel (range 30–90) and are insensitive to the fraction of residue removed. Unless lost C is replaced, life cycle emissions will probably exceed the US legislative mandate of 60% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with gasoline.

—Liska et al.

The results showed that the states of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin had the highest net loss of carbon from residue removal because they have cooler temperatures and more carbon in the soil.

Total annual production emissions, averaged over five years, would equal about 100 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule—7% greater than gasoline emissions and 62 grams above the 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. They found the rate of carbon emissions is constant whether a small amount of stover is removed or nearly all of it is stripped.

… development of other bioenergy systems, such as perennial grasses or forestry resources, may provide feedstocks that could have less negative impacts on SOC, GHG emissions, soil erosion, food security and biodiversity than from removal of corn residue.

Soil CO2 emissions from residue removal, however, can be mitigated by a number of factors and management options. As residue is a source of N2O emissions, residue removal would lower these emissions by ∼4.6 g CO2e MJ−1, or ∼8% of SOC emissions. The lignin fraction of residue can also potentially be burned to produce electricity, off-setting coal- generated electricity and saving emissions of up to ∼55g CO2e MJ−1. Furthermore, use of improved soil and crop management practices, such as no-till cover crops, forage-based cropping systems, animal manure, compost, biochar and biofuel co-products, could replace the estimated SOC loss after residue removal. These management options require more research under different residue removal practices to ensure SOC stocks are maintained where crop residue is removed.

—Liska et al.

Liska said his team tried, without success, to poke holes in the study.

If this research is accurate, and nearly all evidence suggests so, then it should be known sooner rather than later, as it will be shown by others to be true regardless. Many others have come close recently to accurately quantifying this emission.

—Adam Liska

Until now, scientists have not been able to fully quantify how much soil carbon is lost to carbon dioxide emissions after removing crop residue. They’ve been hampered by limited carbon dioxide measurements in cornfields, by the fact that annual carbon losses are comparatively small and difficult to measure, and the lack of a proven model to estimate carbon dioxide emissions that could be coupled with a geospatial analysis.

The research has been in progress since 2007, involving the coordinated effort of faculty, staff and students from four academic departments at UNL. Liska is an assistant professor of biological systems engineering and agronomy and horticulture. He worked with Haishun Yang, an associate professor of agronomy and horticulture, to adapt Yang’s soil carbon model, and with Andrew Suyker, an associate professor in the School of Natural Resources, to validate the model findings with field research. Liska also drew upon research conducted by former graduate students Matthew Pelton and Xiao Xue Fang. Pelton’s master’s degree thesis reprogrammed the soil carbon model, while Fang developed a method to incorporate carbon dioxide emissions into life cycle assessments of cellulosic ethanol.

Liska also worked with Maribeth Milner, a GIS specialist with the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, Steve Goddard, professor of computer science and engineering and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and graduate student Haitao Zhu to design the computational experiment at the core of the paper. Humberto Blanco-Canqui, assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture, also helped to address previous studies on the topic.


  • Adam J. Liska, Haishun Yang, Maribeth Milner, Steve Goddard, Humberto Blanco-Canqui, Matthew P. Pelton, Xiao X. Fang, Haitao Zhu & Andrew E. Suyker (2014) “Biofuels from crop residue can reduce soil carbon and increase CO2 emissions,” Nature Climate Change doi: 10.1038/nclimate2187



They did not quantify how much methane is released as the stover rots in the field, methane is 20 times more potent a green house gas than CO2. They did not consider the bio char returning to the land as carbon.


Methane is mostly generated by microorganisms as they consume biomatter in the absence of oxygen. If the crop residue is being left on the surface of the field to reduce soil erosion there wont be an absence of oxygen.


A thick layer of stover can be oxygen deprived under the pile, fungus can rot that stover and produce gases.


True, but it never gets THAT thick.


Imagine a layer of leaves and stalks chopped up and blown out on to the field during harvest. Now moisture and fungus take over then snow falls covering the biomass. Now imagine spring thaw doing its little tundra out gassing function.


That wouldn't be enough. What it would take is the "absence of oxygen" not merely low levels of it. You'd find the right conditions in a rice paddy: Under inchs of mud that is also under feet of still water.


Even if the conditions you describe were enough, they would be atypical and short lived - meaning it wouldn't happen often enough and the microorganisms wouldn't have the time to make a real impact.

Roger Pham

That's why H2 will be important to supplement the limited availability of biofuels.


Assuming that there is NO CO2 nor methane released from stover left in the field may not be an accurate assumption. With 100 million acres of U.S. farm land planted in corn, that stover left rotting in the field may not add up to zero green house gases emitted.

People say that ALL the stover must remain in the field to return the nutrients back to the soil. Studies show that half can be removed with no affect on the following years crop. The stover must decompose for nutrients to be leached back into the soil with rainfall, to say there is NO gas produced during this decomposition does not seem credible.


I for one am not claiming there will be no gas produced. There will be GHGs produced but they will be mostly CO2 and possibly some NOx.


CO2 is a greenhouse gas, this study does not mention CO2 produced by stover rotting in the fields as a factor.

"can decrease soil organic carbon and increase CO2 emissions"

How can you say it increases CO2 emissions when you do not account for the CO2 produced in the field? When you gasify stover you get bio char carbon as an end product that can be returned to the soil. If you do not take that into account, how can you say it decreases soil carbon?


They are saying that the soil erodes and releases CO2 without stover cover. That assumes that you remove ALL stover and till the land, no till farming has advantages. They also assume that the cellulose ethanol will be made by fermentation, you can gasify and synthesize ethanol from corn stover returning the bio char carbon to the land. This is a flawed study.


"All that methane comes from microorganisms known as methanogens — which thrive in the oxygen-depleted environment created by fungal decay.."


"Rapid increase in volume and types of waste agricultural biomass, as a result of intensive agriculture in the wake of population growth and improved living standards, is becoming a burgeoning problem as rotten waste agricultural
biomass emits methane.."


The study just measured the soil carbon if you remove ALL the stover. It is recommended that your remove HALF the stover. This provides cover for no till farming while preserving the soil carbon. You have less CO2 and methane emitted in the field from stover rot and you can gasify the stover, returning carbon to the land.


If part of the stover is returned as biochar year after year, the total amount of carbon in the soil will be much higher than business as usual.
Even without stover removal, the carbon content will not keep on increasing, but levels off quite fast. Biochar remains in the soil for >100 years.
In addition, energy crops or algae/bacteria sludge (grown in mineral-rich wastewater) can be carbonised for fuel production and the (mineral rich) biochar also returned to these fields, adding to soil fertility.
Bacteria growing in the biochar on the fields love to fixate N2 to nitrates, adding more to soil fertility

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