Appalachian State University photos
“Scientists are now looking for [biofuel] crops that don’t compete with food crops or for the land used to grow them.” — Dr. Eva Gonzales, ASU biology professor
To help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, biologists at Appalachian State University are exploring an Asian grass and algae for use as feedstocks for biofuels.
Their work contributes to the development of “second-generation” biofuels: those made from fast-growing, low-impact plants that don’t take up precious land.
“Currently we get biofuels made from corn, sugar cane and soybeans, and oftentimes forests are cut down to grow these crops. Scientists are now looking for crops that don’t compete with food crops or for the land used to grow them,” said Dr. Eva Gonzales, a professor in ASU’s Department of Biology.
A perennial grass from Asia called Miscanthus has potential as a biofuels source because it grows so quickly even in poor soil. At nine feet tall, it also produces more biomass—which is what’s used to produce ethanol and biodiesel—than pine, and it grows back after harvest with no work or fertilization.
An attractive grass, Miscanthus also can be used for landscaping while serving an important purpose: absorbing animal waste runoff on farms and chemical runoff at locations such as golf courses.
“We want to grow this with the region’s pig and chicken farmers as a buffer between the animals and ponds. The grass soaks up the nutrients and uses them to grow, which also cleans the water,” Gonzales said.
Algae grow rapidly using only sunlight, water, nutrients and carbon dioxide. As they consume, they produce vegetable oil—so much that it’s been estimated algae can produce up to 100 times as much oil per acre as soybeans. “One of the main focuses of my research is to understand what regulates the oil production in the algae,” said Dr. Mark Venable, an ASU biologist and Gonzales’ research colleague.
The plants Gonzales and Venable are researching have a second benefit, too. They simultaneously create natural purifiers for North Carolina’s rivers and streams.
“I’m a kayaker and fisherman and was born and raised in North Carolina, and it really breaks my heart to see the streams not be as healthy as they should be,” Venable said. “I see my research primarily as a way to keep our streams clean. The hog farms and chicken farms in particular are just drowning in their own waste. They’re spraying it on fields and most of it runs off into the streams and creates algae blooms and fish kills. We just don’t need that.”
With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Venable tests the growth of algae using renewable sources, such as wastewater from municipal water treatment plants and livestock operations, and carbon dioxide from power plants and landfill gas.
To learn more, visit today.appstate.edu/biofuels.