Volume 3: December 2010

Switchgrass Research and the Transition to Clean, Renewable Energy

written by Chris Plano ’12 – Fahrner Fellow

Chris Plano and his colleges collect switchgrass samples in the field.

As part of my summer research position with Professor Rich Bowden, I worked with other students in the field and laboratory on two studies. While my primary focus was to continue research on switchgrass that was begun in Professor Bowden’s ES 210 course during the spring 2010 semester, I also had the opportunity to work on a study on acid rain.

The acid rain study entailed taking numerous trips to the Allegheny’s Bousson Research Forest to collect soil samples from the forest floor. The goal of this project was to quantify the effect of nitrogen deposition on the root mass of forest trees. Nitrogen is deposited when acid rain falls, and this is hypothesized to cause a decline in root mass because the trees do not need to send roots as far down to find the nitrogen they need to grow. If root mass is found to decline because of greater levels of nitrogen in the soil, it is likely that trees will live under greater stress during drought conditions expected to be produced by global climate change. In addition to field work, I also spent a considerable amount of time in the lab finding a total root mass for each root sample. The information collected during the summer will be compared to the information gathered throughout the seventeen year history of the Bousson study, and with data collected in a parallel study at the Harvard Forest.

The second and primary part of my summer fellowship involved compilation of a report based on switchgrass research, which had been conducted by students in Professor Bowden’s ES 210 course during the Spring of 2010. This report details the findings of a study that compares ash, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur content in twelve varieties of switchgrass. This information will be used by a local business, Ernst Biomass, to help them select the best varieties of switchgrass to grow for direct combustion. The company will be building a state of the art facility for pelletizing switchgrass, which will be sold to companies that produce electricity as a clean and renewable alternative fuel to replace tons of coal currently being burned in commercial electricity plants. Growing switchgrass also provides a beneficial crop for farmers with plots of land unsuitable for growing food. Because switchgrass is a perennial that stores a lot of carbon, its growth can also significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

My work this past summer has helped prepare me for my senior project in the Environmental Science department. I am confident because I know that my future work here at Allegheny and in the workplace will rely on the methods I learned this summer.