Growing Biofuel Crops on Brownfields?

As many regular readers have likely noted, I’ve become pretty disenchanted by the current political rhetoric surrounding biofuels. I think ethanol and biodiesel can play a role in transforming our economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels, but by no means are they the silver bullet that some might have us think. I also became disenchanted with this article from GreenBiz the more I read (mainly because of the type of rhetoric mentioned above, and the news of more big vehicles from DaimlerChrysler), but the initial idea presented, experimenting with cultivation of crops destined for a refinery, is really interesting:

Growing crops for biofuels summons images of fuel alternatives springing from the rural heartland. But a Michigan State University partnership with DaimlerChrysler is looking at turning industrial brownfields green.

Kurt Thelen, MSU professor of crop and soil sciences, is leading the investigation to examine the possibility that some oilseed crops like soybeans, sunflower and canola, and other crops such as corn and switchgrass, can be grown on abandoned industrial sites for use in ethanol or biodiesel fuel production. Another partner is NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization that supports energy technology development.

The results of the work conducted here might sprout similar sites across the state and nation in areas that aren’t desirable for commercial or residential uses. The results also will contribute crops for biofuel production and may help clean up contaminated soils.

“Right now, brownfields don’t grow anything,” Thelen said. “This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we’re looking at the possibilities of taking land that isn’t productive and using it to both learn and produce.”

Project scientists are experimenting with their ideas on a former industrial dump site in Oakland County, Michigan. A number of questions exist at this point, including 1) will crops grow on polluted sites, 2) if they will, will the plants absorb some of the pollution as they grow, and 3) will that absorbtion of pollution create crops that are useful for biofuels. I think it’s safe to assume that no one’s considering using anything produced on these lands for food crops, so why not, at the very least, try to use bioremediation to clean up these sites and perhaps create some biofuel? What I wonder (and I’m showing my nearly complete lack of knowledge about botany and chemistry) is whether compounds absorbed by plants would remain intact, to some degree, in the oils harvested from them. How would this affect the distillation process? Is there a risk of creating some kind of frankenfuel that would spout a whole new form of pollution (or spread around contaminants formerly confined to the brownfields)? I’m sure all of these questions have arisen, and will be addressed. Overall, I like the idea of trying to produce a more sustainable fuel source in a manner that also could clean up past environmental degradation — whatever comes of this experiment, we certainly need more of that kind of thinking!

Via the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

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