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Native plants smart choice for biofuels

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Biofuels made from native plants could be the most environmentally and economically favourable option, researchers say.

Credit: Wikimedia

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Native perennial plants could be used to make biofuels that are not only more environmentally sustainable, but more economically attractive to boot.

Using a mixture of local plants as fuel appears to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve local water quality and biodiversity, according to US researchers at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in Maryland.

The team, led by Cesar Izaurralde, is using field trials and computer simulations to examine the economic and environmental potential of 'cellulosic' biofuels, which are made from woody or herbaceous plants, instead of starch-based biofuels from corn or sugar cane.

"The most important part of our work is the comprehensive research approach we are using," said Izaurralde.

The team is trying to find which crops grow best under the normal conditions of the test area, the prairies of America’s Great Lakes region.

Plants that thrive on the natural rainfall, temperatures and soil of the region need less care, so less greenhouse gas is emitted while raising them, and they cost less to cultivate, the researchers have found.

Izaurralde’s team also wants to find biofuel crops that don’t interfere with or replace food production, thereby driving up food prices, as this has been a major point of biofuel criticism in the past.

Instead, the researchers suggest, with the right kind of plants, biofuels could be produced on marginal cropland – farmland that has been degraded and is no longer suitable for food production.

A mixture of native prairie plants is a good choice for biofuel crops in the Great Lakes region, Izaurralde said, because they are already adapted to the conditions, improve biodiversity and can be grown on the desired marginal agricultural land.

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