Changing Planet

Dung-absorbing Plant Could Be Ideal Source of Ethanol, Study Suggests

A tiny aquatic plant that can be used to clean up animal waste at industrial hog farms also has potential to help alleviate the world’s energy crisis, according to Researchers at North Carolina State University

Experiments show that growing duckweed on hog wastewater can produce five to six times more starch per acre than corn, according to researcher Jay Cheng. This means that ethanol production using duckweed could be “faster and cheaper than from corn,” says fellow researcher Anne-Marie Stomp.

Photo of duckweed by Mike Yablonski/Courtesy NC State University

“We can kill two birds–biofuel production and wastewater treatment–with one stone: duckweed,” Cheng says in a university new release. “Starch from duckweed can be readily converted into ethanol using the same facilities currently used for corn,” Cheng adds.

Corn is currently the primary crop used for ethanol production in the United States, the release says. “However, its use has come under fire in recent years because of concerns about the amount of energy used to grow corn and commodity price disruptions resulting from competition for corn between ethanol manufacturers and the food and feed industries.

“Duckweed presents an attractive, non-food alternative that has the potential to produce significantly more ethanol feedstock per acre than corn; exploit existing corn-based ethanol production processes for faster scale-up; and turn pollutants into a fuel production system.”

The Duckweed System

The duckweed system consists of shallow ponds that can be built on land unsuitable for conventional crops, and is so efficient it generates water clean enough for re-use, NC State says. The technology can utilize any nutrient-rich wastewater, from livestock production to municipal wastewater.

Large-scale hog farms manage their animal waste by storing it in large “lagoons” for biological treatment. Duckweed utilizes the nutrients in the wastewater for growth, thus capturing these nutrients and preventing their release into the environment.

In other words, Cheng says, “Duckweed could be an environmentally friendly, economically viable feedstock for ethanol.”

“There’s a bias in agriculture that all the crops that could be discovered have been discovered,” Stomp says, “but duckweed could be the first of the new, 21st century crops. In the spirit of George Washington Carver, who turned peanuts into a major crop, Jay and I are on a mission to turn duckweed into a new industrial crop, providing an innovative approach to alternative fuel production.”


Photo by Roger W. Winstead, North Carolina State University

Cheng, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering, co-authored the research with Stomp, associate professor of forestry, and post-doctoral research associate, Mike Yablonski.

The research, which is funded by the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, was presented March 21 at the annual conference of the Institute of Biological Engineering in Santa Carla, California.

Cheng and Stomp are currently establishing a pilot-scale project to further investigate the best way to establish a large-scale system for growing duckweed on animal wastewater, and then harvesting and drying the duckweed, NC State says.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • sonia

    wow very nice blog:)

  • Lamhot

    Back here in Iowa we have a new twist on this story one of the urgencies for biiudlng a coal power plants is to power all the ethanol plants! How’s that for clean energy! Actually, if the new congressional standards to have 15% of gasoline come from ethanol, would require 40% of the current acreage used to grow corn. That’s just for 15% of the gasoline burned. What do you think that will do to food prices? Stay Tuned!

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