Bio-fuels clean up American wastelands

The potential of biofuel crops to grow on brownfield sites, with the added bonus of the plants sucking up pollutants, could help find more efficient ways of producing biodiesel and ethanol.

Scientists at Michigan State University are comparing the yield and quality of potential biofuel crops grown on contaminated land with those on an agricultural control site. They will also study their ability to “clean up” contaminated land over time.

The project was enabled by a cooperation between Michigan State University, a non-profit organisation called NextEnergy, and car manufacturers Daimler Chrysler, who are exploring the use of bio-ethanol and diesel mixture in their vehicles.

As large areas of contaminated sites are easier to come by than agricultural land, especially on the scales needed for biofuel production, the project could greatly reduce the costs of growing biofuels.

“Right now, brownfields don’t grow anything,” said Kurt Thelen, who is leading the research at Michgan State University. “This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we’re looking at the possibilities of taking land that isn’t productive and using it to both learn and produce.”

“Biofuel production is going to require a significant land base to meet future production expectations,” he said.

The only snag is that the quality of the end product could be compromised in the process. One of the main goals of the study is to establish if brownfield land can produce oilseed crops – such as soybean or sunflower – with sufficiently high oil content to be used to make bio-diesel. The researchers are also testing other crops, such as corn and switchgrass.

Daimler Chrysler sees biofuels as part of the answer to America’s dependence on oil and rising fuel prices.

“Renewable fuels such as biodiesel can be a home-grown solution to our nation’s environmental, energy and economic challenges,” said Deborah Morrissett, vice president of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler.

The company is preparing itself for the future, as a US standard for B20, a 20% bio-diesel – 80% petroleum diesel mix, is yet to be decided.

“As the chemical engineers work on developing a national spec for B20, we’ll grow the crops in the marginal areas and see if they can meet it,” Dr Thelen said.

Goska Romanowicz

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