This is the conclusion of researchers at Teesside University’s Contaminated Land & Water Centre.

The idea of using brownfield and polluted sites for biofuels is not new – indeed, parts of eastern Europe still contaminated by the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster have been flagged up as the perfect location for mass cultivation of fuel crops.

But knowing which crops are likely to provide the most energy from the worst conditions has been up for debate.

A five-year study in Teesside suggests that reed canary grass is the ideal candidate for sites in the UK, and can easily be turned into bricks or pellets for burning in biomass power station or small-scale boilers.

The team experimented with four types of plant: current biomass favourite willow trees and three types of grass – miscanthus, reed canary and switch grasses.

Dr Richard Lord, reader in environmental geochemistry and sustainability, said: “We have narrowed the plants down to reed canary grass because it grows well on poor soils and contaminated industrial sites.

“That is significant because in areas like Teesside, and many similar ones around the country, there are a lot of marginal or brownfield sites on which reed canary grass can be grown.

“Selecting such sites means that the grass can be grown without taking away land which would otherwise be used in food production, a key concern for those involved in the biomass and biofuel sectors.”

The grass takes two years to reach maturity.

Dr Lord added: “The test burnings have shown that reed canary grass produces a good, clean fuel without picking up contamination from the soil.

“Reed canary grass has great potential because it offers a suitable use for unsightly brownfield sites while producing an excellent fuel at a time when the world is crying out for new ways of producing green energy.

“Our research also suggests that the end product is improved soil quality and biodiversity at the greened-up sites. We are now examining ways in which we can commercialise this idea and are already talking to a number of major biomass power station operators.”

Sam Bond

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