While the Virginia Water Resources Research Center studies the hydrologic effects of forest biofuels, campus researchers are looking into related aspects of using switchgrass as a biofuel. The following are just a few of those studies:
Percival Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and other researchers, as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia, have discovered a method for converting cellulosic materials and water into hydrogen fuel. Through the process they have produced hydrogen gas pure enough to power a fuel cell.
Virginia Tech's Conservation Management Institute and the College of Natural Resources and Environment are participating in a project to support the planting of native, perennial warm-season grasses as a viable crop and as streamside buffers in the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Fields converted from row crops to such grasses will reduce the need for fertilizer and provide a potential alternative crop for farmers. The project is in its final year of a three-year period and despite some early setbacks, has been seeing encouraging results. More than 1,000 of a planned 3,070 acres have been planted.
John Fike, associate professor of crop and soil environmental science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is conducting several studies. One, originally supported by the Virginia Agricultural Council, tests switchgrass, miscanthus, and other feedstock species for productivity and yield decline with delayed harvest. Two others supported by the U.S. Department of Energy look at switchgrass and miscanthus production in response to nitrogen fertility applications. Another, supported by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority at the Northern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center, tests the interaction of bio-solid application rate and harvest management on switchgrass yield and field quality. All are in collaboration with John Galbraith, associate professor of crop and soil environmental science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads the soil analysis.
A Department of Energy study tests establishment methods for switchgrass, and Fike is also testing miscanthus establishment and varietal performance in conjunction with Piedmont BioProducts in Gretna. Both these studies have water quality implications in that ease and speed of establishment can affect ground cover and consequent erosion losses.
Kevan Minick, a doctoral student in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, is investigating soil carbon and nutrient cycling in response to forest biofuel production. His work is under the supervision of Tom Fox, associate professor of forest resources and environmental conservation, and Brian Strahm, assistant professor of forest resources and environmental conservation. Planting loblolly pine and switchgrass together on intensively managed forest plantations has the potential to provide a plant-based biofuel source without the conversion of existing agricultural or forested land. To ensure the success of such an system, however, the nutrient demands of both species must be met.
Leveraging Minick’s work for additional support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Virginia Tech Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation faculty John Seiler, Fox, and Strahm are initiating a new research effort to determine the effect that such bioenergy production systems have on the stability of soil carbon and their potential contributions to atmospheric greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide.
John Cundiff, professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is developing machinery that could allow switchgrass to move from fields to processing plants at a reasonable cost, an essential need if switchgrass is to become a valuable source of energy. The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation recently donated money to help fund Cundiff’s work.
The Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech is taking part in a large-scale regional study that aims to evaluate how growing switchgrass as a biofuel within pine plantations will affect water supply and water quality.