Effect of nitrogen fertilization on sorghum for biomass production
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Two field experiments were carried out in 2005 and 2006 in central Italy in order to evaluate the effects of different nitrogen (N) application rates (0, 50 100 and 150 kg ha-1 ) on flowering date, plant height, biomass production and partitioning (leaves, panicles and stems) and biomass quality of a sorghum hybrid (H133). Sorghum showed a high potential in terms of biomass production without N fertilization (18.5 t ha-1 of d.m. in 2005 and 26.6 t ha-1 of d.m. in 2006). The rate that maximized the biomass production was 100 kg ha-1 of N, increasing the biomass dry weight by 23.8% in 2005 and 18.8% in 2006, with respect to unfertilized sorghum; higher N rates are not advisable in order to avoid increasing fertilization costs and environmental impact without benefit of greater biomass production. The two highest N rates when combined with low water availability appeared to increase the rate of plant development, causing earlier flowering and increasing the percentage of panicles in total biomass. Higher heating value (HHV), lower heating value (LHV) and ash concentration of biomass varied among N rates, with values of HHV and LHV lower for unfertilized sorghum (17.6 and 16.7 MJ kg-1 d.m., respectively) than when N was applied (from 19.0 to 19.7 and from 18.1 to 18.8 MJ kg-1 d.m., respectively); on the contrary, ash concentration was greater for unfertilized sorghum (7.5% d.m.) than for fertilized sorghum (from 5.8 to 6.7% d.m.). This research showed the high potential of sorghum in terms of biomass production also when cultivated with limited irrigation and fertilization inputs. The biomass dry yield obtained by one hectare of sorghum crop without N nitrogen fertilization (i.e. 22.6 t ha-1 of d.m., average of 2005 and 2006 values) produces the same energy, by thermal utilisation, of 9.3 toe, that is equivalent to energy produced by 10,385 L of diesel fuel or 11,097 m3 of methane fuel. This aspect increases the certainty of the energetic and environmental sustainability of sorghum crop.