An EU-funded team of researchers has discovered that grass can be used to produce energy that doesn't harm the environment. The BIOREGEN ('Biomass, remediation, re-generation: reusing brownfield sites for renewable energy crops') project received EUR 1.2 million under the EU's LIFE-Environment research programme.
Led by the Contaminated Land and Water Centre at Teesside University in the UK, the researchers aimed to show whether reusing brownfield sites to grow energy crops for renewable energy is possible. These abandoned or underused industrial or commercial properties are considered as potential sites for redevelopment.
The researchers kick-started the project in 2004 and found that Phalaris arundinacea, commonly known as 'reed canary grass', is a great candidate for growth on brownfield sites, and can be developed into fuel for biomass power stations and even boilers in school buildings.
Reed canary grass a perennial grass widely distributed in Europe, North America, northern Africa and Asia. In the UK, reed canary grass is converted into bricks and pellets. Experts say that they are not harmful to the environment as they neither increase greenhouse gas emissions nor fuel global warming.
Besides reed canary grass, the researchers tested Miscanthus and switchgrass, as well as four plant types and willow trees, which are commonly used in biomass power stations, in various parts of the region.
'We have narrowed the plants down to reed canary grass because it grows so well on poor soils and contaminated industrial sites,' explained Dr Richard Lord, a reader in Environmental Geochemistry and Sustainability at Teesside University. 'That is significant because in areas like Teesside, and many similar ones around the country, there are a lot of marginal or brownfield sites on which reed canary grass can be grown,' he added.
'Selecting such sites means that the grass can be grown without taking away land which would otherwise be used in food production, a key concern for those involved in the biomass and biofuel sectors.'
Once the grass reaches maturity, a process that takes two years, it is harvested and baled up before its conversion into bricks and pellets.
'The test burnings have shown that reed canary grass produces a good, clean fuel without picking up contamination from the soil,' Dr Lord pointed out. 'Reed canary grass has great potential because it offers a suitable use for unsightly brownfield sites while producing an excellent fuel at a time when the world is crying out for new ways of producing green energy,' he went on to say.
'Our research also suggests that the end product is improved soil quality and biodiversity at the greened-up sites. We are now examining ways in which we can commercialise this idea and are already talking to a number of major biomass power station operators.'
Experts say crops burnt specifically for fuel falls under the 'renewable energy' category. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere when the biomass is burnt. When crops are re-grown, the same amount of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. Biofuels are considered carbon neutral because they have no impact on the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
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