UNO professor searches for new biofuel sources


Written by Savannah Behrends


Nebraska may be known for something other than corn in the near future, compliments of a new study providing alternative biofuel options.
The National Academy of Science published research from a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, Timothy Dickson, and 16 other authors. Their research was focused around finding a more viable source of biofuel that was equally as good for the environment as us.
“The main environmental benefits to biofuel are that they potentially reduce greenhouse gasses because they offset the use of fossil fuels,” Dickson said.
Right now, the most common form of bio-fuel is Ethanol, a corn based biofuel. However, there is one fundamental problem that makes the use of Ethanol on a global spectrum somewhat unpractical.
“The problem with this is that ethanol from corn uses almost as much fossil fuel energy to produce as it offsets,” Dickson said. “This is because of the energy inputs to make the necessary fertilizers and pesticides to grow corn, as well as the energy to convert corn to ethanol.”
The team decided to look into more perennial plants, such as switchgrass and other prairie plants. These sorts of plants take up less fertilizers and pesticides because they have a longer lifespan than that of corn.
In their research, they found that switchgrass and prairie plants can house far more organisms than corn. These organisms included other plants, bees, insect herbivores and soil microbes.
The biggest incentive for using these plants as a biofuel is their low methane emissions. Methane is one of the biggest greenhouse gasses but “is discussed a lot less because a lot less methane is produced globally than CO2,” Dickson said.
“We found that more methane was taken up by microbes in switchgrass and prairie plantings than in corn plantings,” Dickson said. “Therefore, it appears switchgrass and prairie plantings are producing less methane from the soil than are corn plantings.”
What does this mean for the corn that Nebraska is known for? In Nebraska, corn will still be widely grown since it does feed Nebraska’s other famous counterpart- beef. But in places that don’t need to feed livestock, the hope is that they will replace corn with switchgrasses or prairie plants.
Both plants can thrive in conditions that Nebraska provides, but can also grow fine in places where there is less productivity and higher erosion rates.
Therefore, switchgrass and prairie plants are excellent candidates in the race to find viable biofuels to replace fossil fuel, coal and oils, and Nebraska is on the frontline.
“We can grow more biofuel, but we can’t grow more coal or oil,” Dickson said.