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Cellulosic biofuels best bet for climate concerns

They’re lower impact than other options and can even sequester carbon rather than produce it

A new study from Colorado State University is breathing new life into the concept of biofuels produced from switchgrass instead of grain crops.

The team says the non-edible native grass which grows in many locations throughout North America could be a better alternative than corn and other cereal and oilseed crops when it comes to powering motor vehicles and even airplanes.

The scientists used modelling to simulate various growing scenarios, and found a climate footprint ranging from -11 to 10 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule — the standard way of measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

To compare with other fuels, the impact of using gasoline results in 94 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule.

The study was published online Feb. 19 in Nature Energy.

John Field, research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at CSU, said what the team found is significant. “What we saw with switchgrass is that you’re actually storing carbon in the soil,” he said. “You’re building up organic matter and sequestering carbon.”

His CSU research team works on second-generation cellulosic biofuels made from non-edible plant material such as grasses. Cellulose is the stringy fibre of a plant. These grasses, including switchgrass, are potentially more productive as crops and can be grown with less of an environmental footprint than corn.

“They don’t require a lot of fertilizer or irrigation,” Field said. “Farmers don’t have to plow up the field every year to plant new crops, and they’re good for a decade or longer.”

Researchers chose a study site in Kansas since it has a cellulosic biofuel production plant.

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