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State studying fast-growing plant for biofuel

Posted November 7, 2012
Updated November 12, 2012

— The clock is ticking on the state’s ambitious goal to replace 10 percent of petroleum-based fuel with locally grown biofuels by 2017.

Researchers at the nonprofit Biofuels Center of North Carolina are studying a hardy and fast-growing plant that could be the answer. But critics say it’s risky.

The Arundo donax, a cane-like plant, grows in abundance. Crops reach up to 20 feet tall, don’t take up much land, need little fertilizer and can tolerate drought.

“It has the traits you want,” said Steven Burke of the Biofuels Center, which is growing the plant in a field in Oxford.

According to the Biofuels Center, the Arundo donax can produce up to 20 tons per acre of biomass that could be turned into biofuel, compared with 6 to 8 tons per acre for switchgrass, another plant being explored for biofuel.

That number could make Arundo donax a commercially viable energy crop.

State studying fast-growing plant for biofuel State studying fast-growing plant for biofuel

But there's another side to Arundo. Tony Koop, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says it can be an invasive plant.

Arundo has spread through 25 states. It's especially bad in the Southwest and California, where it damages rivers and streams, creates erosion and flooding, and destroys native habitats.

“It’s definitely a problem in lots of places,” Koop said. “But just because it's one of the worst weeds out in the Southwest doesn't mean it's going behave like a terrible invasive exotic here.”

Burke said Arundo can be safely managed so it doesn't turn into a problem plant. And he said it could be crucial to meeting the biofuels goal.

The state can reach that 10 percent mark, Burke said, but only if manufacturers have enough plants to turn into fuel.


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  • Weetie Nov 9, 2012

    Someone will probably figure out how to smoke it

  • Crumps Br0ther Nov 8, 2012

    This may work until the hippies find some obscure bug that lives in it and then we wont be able to harvest the plant for fuel because it is a habitat for some protected critter.

  • Tarheel born Nov 8, 2012

    mempheel.......thanks for the 'lesson'.....makes my opinion easy to agree with it being a viable product to help with biofuel prduction. Hopefully the farmers can grow it, use it as a source of income, and help reduce costs by using it in diesel equipment thereby passing some of the savings on to consumers - ideally.

  • mempheel Nov 8, 2012

    LKG- interesting theory, but it should be noted that Arundo has no seeds: it only grows by rhizome propagation (creeping root mass). It became a problem in California and Texas where it was used to shore up irrigation canals early in the 20th century, and the rhizomes were spread by floodwaters. Arundo has been used as an ornamental in NC for decades, and there's no evidence of it spreading aggressively in our state. Properly managed, there's no reason that Arundo shouldn't be an important component of a new industry sector for biofuels that can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, benefit North Carolina farmers, and slow down the overfilling of our atmosphere with ancient carbon.

  • LKG-Lover Nov 8, 2012

    As if Kudsu wasn't enough, now we are going to introduce Arundo to our state. I don't believe it can be contained any more than the wind and rain. So when the wind blows the seed everywhere and they get a little rain, boom, you have infestation.

  • miseem Nov 8, 2012

    Sounds like Son of Kudzu.