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New study to holistically evaluate biofuels' impact on climate

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Scientists at Clemson University have received a federal grant to evaluate the effectiveness of producing biofuels to mitigate climate change.

The development of effective land-use policies could be greatly aided by quantifying the net impact that growing biomass feedstock for biofuel has on local temperature and carbon sequestration. This is the key focus of the new research project being led by Thomas O’Halloran, a scientist from Clemson University.

“If we incentivise the Southeast to plant switchgrass instead of loblolly pine, for example, how would that affect local climate? This study will give us some answers,” said O’Halloran, assistant professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson’s Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science in Georgetown.

“Biofuels are about reducing fossil fuel use in the interest of benefitting the climate, so this research is about getting a holistic view on whether this is actually beneficial to the environment.”

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded O’Halloran a $147,744, two year grant to analyse how switchgrass fields and loblolly pine forests affect local temperatures through the exchange of water, energy, radiation and carbon with the atmosphere.

In addition, the project aims to quantify below and above ground carbon fluxes in both loblolly pine and switchgrass plantations, and assess the greenhouse gas emissions for the biofuel production chain for each crop. By collaborating with Pragnya L. Eranki, deputy director of research for the Institute for Sustainability in Clemson’s Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, O’Halloran will construct a comparative picture of the potential of these feedstocks to reduce carbon emissions when generating electricity by co-firing in a coal power plant.

“We will be able to identify greenhouse gas hotspots along the entire supply chain, including biomass cultivation and harvest in the field, intermediate storage, biomass transport to the coal-firing power plant and the actual generating of the electricity in the plant,” Eranki said.

Loblolly pine can be ground into pellets that can be used for fuel. Switchgrass can also be burned as fuel or converted to cellulosic ethanol and has been discussed as a low-cost commodity for the agriculture industry, according to the press release from Clemson University.

“We have to develop robust plants, animals and management systems that can flourish under challenging environmental conditions,” NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy said in a statement. “We expect that the outcomes of these investments will support American farmers and producers, and ensure their profitability.”