According to a recent study at the University of Illinois, harvesting invasive plants for use as biofuels may sound like a great idea, but the reality poses numerous obstacles and is too expensive to consider, at least with the current ethanol pathways.
This is Arundo donax, invading along the Santa Ana River in Riversie, Calif.
Credit: Lauren Quinn
"When the topic of potential invasion by non-native biofuel crops has been raised at conferences I've attended, the ecologists in the room have suggested we use biomass from existing invaders instead," said Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist in U of I's Energy Biosciences Institute.
"They worry about the potential deployment of tens of thousands of acres of known invaders like Arundo donax for ethanol production. They'd say, 'we have all of these invasive plants. Let's just harvest them instead of planting new ones!' But when I analyzed the idea from a broader perspective, it just didn't add up."
Quinn explored the idea of harvesting invasive plants from many angles but said that the overarching problem is the non-sustainability of the profit stream. "From a business person's perspective, it just doesn't function like a typical crop that is harvested and then replanted or harvested again the following year," she said. "Here, land managers are trying to get rid of an invasive plant using an array of methods, including herbicides, so there wouldn't necessarily be multiple years of harvest."
Other obstacles Quinn examined are the need for specially designed harvesting equipment, the development of new conversion technologies for these unique plants, and even the problems associated with transportation.
"One of the biggest issues is the absence of appropriate biorefineries in any given area," Quinn said. "If there isn't one nearby, growers would have to transport the material long distances, and that's expensive."
Perhaps more important, Quinn discussed the issues with the high variability of the cell wall composition across different species. "Most existing or planned biorefineries can process only a single, or at best, a small handful of conventional feedstocks, and are not likely to be flexible enough to handle the variety of material brought in from invasive plant control projects," Quinn said. "The breakdown and processing of plant tissues to ethanol requires different temperatures, enzymes, and equipment that are all highly specific. The proportion of cellulose, lignin, and other fractionation products can differ even within a single genotype if it is grown in multiple regions so the variations between completely different plant types would be an even greater hurdle."
Quinn isn't discounting the idea of harvesting invasive plants, however. She encourages control of invasive populations and subsequent ecological restoration but does not believe that invasive biomass can replace dedicated energy crops at present.
"One day there might be a pathway toward ethanol conversion of invasive biomass," Quinn said. "But until we do get to that point, there may be possibilities to use invasive plants as alternative sources of energy, like combustion for electricity. Invasive biomass could drop into the existing supply of biomass being co-fired with coal in the already huge network of electrical power plants across the country. That would eliminate the technological barriers that conversion to ethanol presents.
"I'm not saying that we shouldn't continue to look at ethanol conversion processes eventually, I'm just saying that right now, it doesn't seem to make a lot of economic sense."
"Why not harvest existing invaders for bioethanol?" was published in a recent issue of Biological Invasions. A. Bryan Endres and Thomas B. Voigt contributed. The research was funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute.
The Energy Biosciences Institute, funded by the energy company BP, is a research collaboration that includes the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It is dedicated to applying the biological sciences to the challenges of producing sustainable, renewable energy for the world.
Debra Levey Larson | EurekAlert!
How brains surrender to sleep
23.06.2017 | IMP - Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pathologie GmbH
A new technique isolates neuronal activity during memory consolidation
22.06.2017 | Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology