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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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Furthermore, Izaurralde points to a paper that appeared in the US journal Science last year, showing that biofuel from the perennial plants is actually carbon negative, because the amount of carbon absorbed by the growing plants exceeds the amount released from fossil fuels used in growing and processing the crops.

In theory, biofuels are good for the environment because they only recirculate carbon already in the atmosphere.

But when rainforests or grasslands are felled and ploughed for conversion to biofuel cropland, huge amounts of carbon sequestered in the soil are released, and fertilising the crops with petroleum-based chemicals also adds to their carbon footprint.

Those problems are avoided by planting the hardy prairie grass on already available, degraded land.

Choosing perennials that don’t need to be replanted annually further reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released in biofuel production.

Another bonus of using local species is an increase in biodiversity in the area, because the grasses provide more habitat for predatory insects that help control pests, bees that pollinate crops, and local bird species.

Deborah O’Connell, a researcher at Australia’s CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems in Canberra, said that using local plants is also a smart choice because of the weed potential of many conventional biofuel crops.

"The perfect energy crop is also the perfect weed," she said.

Australian researchers are testing a range of cellulosic biofuel crops, O’Connell said, including trees like the oil mallee, which is planted through wheat fields in Western Australia to prevent salinity and provide electricity-generating feedstock, charcoal for water filtration and eucalyptus oil.

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