A pair of West Virginia University professors are researching acid soil and metal resistance in poplar trees to explore non-food stock sources for biofuel production.
Jonathan Cumming, professor of biology, and Steve DiFazio, associate professor of biology at WVU, said acid soil limits agricultural productivity on about 40 percent of agricultural land and could be made efficient again with the right modifications to poplar.
“Acid soils are soils that are typically older and well-weathered. They have been through a lot of rain cycles and have a lot of vegetation growing on them,” Cumming said.
“When they’re acidic, they have very low nutrient availability and they also have high levels of metals that are potentially toxic to plants.”
The research team hopes to identify acid resistant clones of poplar by learning which genes provide acid soil resistance traits, and using these genotypes on marginal soils in the East.
“Poplar has a wide range of responses to the environment and we’re hoping to identify specific genes that will do well on acid soils,” DiFazio noted. “When we identify these genes, we’ll be able to understand the reasons why they’re resistant and use these in the field.”
By then taking and chipping the wood of the selected trees, they can ultimately produce ethanol from a biological source that doesn’t compete with food.
“One of the big challenges we’ve had with ethanol production as a biofuel is that most of the ethanol that has been produced at this stage is produced from corn,” Cumming said.
“When you increase the demand for ethanol to put in gasoline—most gasoline contains 10 percent ethanol—we’re deriving that ethanol from corn.”
Corn, however, is a food stock. When ethanol demand increased because it’s an alternative and additive to gasoline, it caused the price of corn to increase. This increase led directly to a price spike in food in Mexico when the United States reduced exports of corn.
“Our idea is that if we can identify acid resistant clones of poplar, than we would be able to produce biofuel feed stock on soils that otherwise can’t produce food,” Cumming said.
“What we want to try and do is get ethanol production off of agricultural food lands and on to lands that have already been degraded by mining or are naturally acidic and can’t produce crops effectively.”
The research is funded by a $498,936 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture—National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
For more information, contact Jonathan Cumming at 304-293-5260 or Jonathan.Cumming@mail.wvu.edu.
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