Research presents ideas to create more renewable energy, reduce pollution



Andria Homewood

As years progress, scientists and researchers have found evidence of climate change and global warming. With imminent climate changes happening on our planet, many people are starting to wonder what’s next in an economy that runs on fossil fuels.

Emily Heaton, associate professor of agronomy, gave her keynote presentation “Perennial Power!” Monday night to about 20 people as part of the Osborn Club. Her presentation explored the steps needed to transition from a fossil-based economy to a plant-based one.

The Osborn Club was founded in 1921 as a way for scientists from all areas to exchange knowledge. Each meeting consists of a presentation of research from a faculty member on campus.

Heaton’s presentation started with biomass, organic organisms used to create energy. She compared how much biomass the United States uses for energy to how much fossil fuels, natural gas and coal are used. Petroleum is still the king of energy, making up more than 30 quadrillion British thermal units, or just over 31 billion joules.

Biomass, like using paper pulp to make electricity and corn to make ethanol, still remains a small part of the energy Americans use. Heaton hopes to expand biomass as an energy option because of the way plants, specifically perennial grasses, create energy and how quickly they grow.

“All plants are solar collectors, and some do it better than others,” Heaton said. 

Plants, through photosynthesis, create oxygen and sugars, which are both beneficial to humans. But they are extremely important to energy producers, who can use the sugars in plants to create affordable and renewable energy.

Heaton presented a table of plants she studied, looking at which plants were better at things like photosynthesis, recycling nutrients to roots, non-invasive, high water use efficiency and pest control. She looked at maize, trees and perennial grasses. Perennial grasses were the winner in these cases and are the best plan of action to create more renewable energy without harming the environment.

In fact, this type of energy production could actually help the environment. By cutting out fossil fuels and turning to biomass, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will decrease, slowing global warming. Not only will planting perennial grasses help the planet’s atmosphere, but they will also have an effect on preventing soil from washing away and keeping nitrogen, a vital attribute to growing crops, in the soil.

Heaton said the cycle of creating and using biomass energy is about a year-long process that includes growing the perennial grass, then harvesting it when it is mature to use for biomass energy production. In the end, what is left is renewable energy, an oxygen-rich atmosphere and good fields for farmers to plant in next season.

But the process to make fossil fuels takes millions of years, and tons of carbon dioxide is poured into the atmosphere in the process.

Heaton hopes that farmers and governments will buy into this idea because energy can be produced so quickly. But the cost and profits interest many people as well. 

“We can put dollar signs behind poor spots in a field” Heaton said.

By growing perennial grasses on highly unprofitable crop land, farmers can see an increase in profit because the plant will be sold to create energy, but scientists will see a decrease in erosion and water pollution and an increase in biodiversity.

Heaton understands that it’s hard to convince people to move away from something we are familiar with.

“It’s easy to stay with the devil, you know, fossil fuels,” Heaton said.

She explained that in her research, she is finding better ways to make biomass energy sound more pleasing to farmers and energy producers who just aren’t buying into biomass energy right now.

“Its not science that’s holding us back,” Heaton said. “It’s people that are holding us back right now.”

David Grewell, former president of the Osborn Club and a professor at Iowa State, said Heaton’s research won’t be seen for a while, but he thinks it’s a good subject to be discussing right now.

“[Heaton’s research] represents a science and technology that has the ability to offset many of the problems we have related to industrial agriculture,” Grewell said. “This is a natural, sustainable solution.”

Biomass production can be seen all over Iowa, even though it still is one of the less-used forms of energy. One of these is the ethanol production from corn, but another is a discovery from the University of Iowa, which invented a way to create energy out of the oat hulls from General Mills in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This was all in an effort to get the school running on 40 percent renewable energy by the year 2020.

Iowa State has a similar program called “Live Green!,” which monitors energy consumption on Iowa State’s campus and has since decreased energy consumption by 15 percent since 2008, according to the Office of Sustainability website.