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 in Appalachian's Department of Biology.
The plants being researched by Gonzales and colleague Dr. Mark Venable 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."
An expert in lipid metabolism, Venable spent the early part of his career researching the role of lipids, or fats, in human health—such as aging and cardiovascular function. Four years ago, he shifted his lipid expertise to algae biotechnology.
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," Venable said.
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. His lab in Rankin Science Building features various systems testing different types of algae.
Venable will be working with Watauga County officials to someday apply his lab successes at the Watauga County landfill, where algae could be used to consume the carbon dioxide and the Watauga County wastewater treatment plant where they can purify the water. The landfill project would involve pumping carbon dioxide from the landfill's gas flare through an algae pond where the organisms would convert the CO2 into oil for biofuel.
A perennial grass from Asia called Miscanthus has potential as a biofuels source, according to Gonzales, 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.
"Miscanthus has very good production with no input," said Gonzales, a plant evolutionary biologist. The grass also produces no seeds, which eliminates the risk of it becoming an invasive species, she explained.
Gonzales has tested the plant in fields in Georgia. This spring, she will start growing a plot in Boone after having conducted experiments in the Department of Biology greenhouse.
An attractive grass, Miscanthus also can be used for landscaping while serving an important purpose: absorbing animal waste run-off on farms and chemical run-off 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 grown, which also cleans the water," she said.
Gonzales has received funding for her research through Appalachian's University Research Council.