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SMARTFARM: Changing What's Possible for Agriculture

by Dr. David Babson

There is an old proverb: you can’t have your cake and eat it too. It means that one cannot have two incompatible things, but it is too often applied to things that are not necessarily incompatible, they are only perceived to be. Take, for example, how economic growth is often thought to be incompatible with environmental sustainability. The truth is that when it comes to addressing global resource limitations, environmental challenges, and economic growth, we are able to both have our cake and eat it too. 

This is especially true for agriculture as we depend on this sector for food, and increasingly, for renewable bioenergy feedstocks and ecosystem services (e.g., soil carbon storage). What if farmers could diversify their product portfolio and simultaneously offer seemingly incompatible services – ecosystem services and low-cost commodity products - to support an environmentally sustainable bioeconomy? They can.

Technical developments anticipated from ARPA-E’s Energy SMARTFARM (Systems for Monitoring and Analytics for Renewable Transportation Fuel from Agricultural Resources and Management) program will simultaneously promote greater profitability for farmers and greater environmental sustainability for our planet. We will have our cake and eat it too. 

Biofuels have the potential to be a carbon-negative source of energy

Biofuels are, by far, the largest product in the bioeconomy. Their benefit to the broader economy and environment could be substantially improved by making them carbon negative. It seems counter intuitive to view something that is being combusted, and thereby generating CO2, as carbon negative. But accounting for the full lifecycle of emissions associated with the production and use of biofuels accommodates numerous carbon drawdown opportunities that could more than offset fossil carbon emissions. Negative-emissions fuel – fuel that throughout its lifecycle removes and sequesters more carbon than it emits – is ARPA-E’s vision for advanced biofuels.  

Economic incentives exist to promote cleaner fuels, but they don’t extend to feedstock production

An obstacle to that vision is that growing biofuel feedstocks is not easy, and the profit margins are small. High-volume, low-cost biomass is key to market viability, and thus yield is essentially the only driver for on-farm optimization. However, the value of the finished biofuel is dependent on its lifecycle GHG emissions on a per-energy basis. This metric, expressed in grams of CO2 equivalent per mega joule (g CO2e/MJ), is the fuel’s carbon intensity (CI).  Since the accounting of the fuel’s CI includes feedstock production, farmers could theoretically increase the value of their crop by implementing technologies and strategies that would decrease the CI of their crop.

In fact, established low-carbon fuel markets can confer nearly $200 per ton of carbon reduced to the product. At this level of carbon pricing, implementing strategies to reduce farm-level CI by as few as 10 grams per mega joule of biofuel energy could provide farmers with an additional $100 per acre. This would be a sizeable new revenue for farmers, but in order to properly account for lifecycle GHG emissions throughout the entire biomass to biofuel supply chain, robust accounting of feedstock production practices and outcomes is needed.

ARPA-E’s Energy SMARTFARM will fill a data and technology gap to connect feedstock production to biofuel carbon markets

Field-level CI can currently be quantified, but the cost and complexity of current technologies limits data collection on commercial farms. The development of low-cost sensors and systems to measure farm-level CI would fundamentally change farming as it would support greater on-farm analytics, provide a basis for more efficient precision agriculture and, for the first time, it would allow farmers to consider optimization strategies beyond yield. These strategies would complement, not detract from, existing incentives for improving yield by enabling farmers to evaluate the economic and environmental impacts of their decision making in a reliable, and quantitative, manner.

Quantifying CI for biofuel feedstocks would immediately connect feedstock production to established markets, and research into reducing the CI of bioenergy feedstocks would be relevant throughout the agriculture sector. This would enable new ecosystem markets for products beyond fuels.    

ARPA-E is building a new community to change what is possible for the ag-based bioeconomy

If successful, the Energy SMARTFARM program will establish new revenue streams for farmers, generate new datasets for stakeholders, and stimulate new commercialization pathways for other ARPA-E technologies.  This program will not seek to develop technologies to reduce on-farm CI, rather it creates the possibility to quantify the value proposition of any and all new technologies and strategies that reduce on-farm CI. This will catalyze their rapid development and adoption to drive efficiency and emissions reductions in the agriculture sector.  

ARPA-E needs to identify and select the best teams to ground-truth field-level carbon intensity

The Energy SMARTFARM program is intended to proceed in three stages. First, it will build a network of ground-truth sites at commercial feedstock production farms to generate “gold-standard” data sets for farm-level CI quantification. Second, it will fund advanced research to develop low-cost GHG and soil carbon sensor and validation systems to allow for broad adoption of CI quantification infrastructure on production farms. Third, it will administer a grand challenge in which performing teams will compete for prizes by demonstrating novel low-cost on-farm CI quantification and CI optimization decision support systems.

While the final metrics and structure for phases two and three are currently under development, the critical first step is recruiting the best teams to establish the ground-truth sites. Please review the recent funding opportunity announcement, and share it with your networks to ensure we can elicit the best set of proposals for this effort.

How to Apply to the SMARTFARM Topic

Access the "Solicitation on Topics Informing New Program Areas" funding opportunity. 

Access the "Solicitation on Topics Informing New Program Areas SBIR/STTR" funding opportunity.