In symbiosis with bacteria, legumes are able to biologically fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and therefore require less artificial nitrogen fertilizer. As the manufacturing of nitrogen fertilizers demands a lot of process energy, growing legumes may give large overall energy savings. The reduction of nitrogen fertilizer, however, gives a yield loss as the carbon-to-nitrogen efficiency is lower for inoculation than for the synthetic process. When brought into the realm of biomass for bioenergy, the energy savings obtained through less fertilizer input must be balanced with the loss of potential yield output. Twelve popular choice crops (including two legumes, two crops grown in mixture with legumes and one crop associated with mycorrhiza) were chosen to investigate the relationship between solar radiation input, fertilizer input and the resulting potential bioenergy output. A cradle-to-factory gate assessment was performed with cumulative energy and exergy values as the main indicators. The trade-off between lower fertilizer energy inputs to utilized solar radiation was assessed. Combined they relate to the land use efficiency, basically the energy relations per hectare. Our analysis shows that legumes do not present energy savings and do not contribute to sustainability when grown as bioenergy crops. The benefits of nitrogen fixation by legumes should be carefully assessed and best utilized within the emerging sector of non-food applications.
- biological nitrogen-fixation