Biofuels are currently derived from corn and soybeans in the US to make ethanol and biodiesel, respectively. While energy and greenhouse gas savings are realized, several significant tradeoffs have arisen including a) increase in food prices and b) a shift in environmental burden to impacts manifesting as eutrophication and hypoxia (i.e. the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico). Cultivating biofuels on marginal lands may alleviate these problems and may serve to contribute additional environmental benefits in the form of soil remediation.

The goal of the proposed research is to quantify the benefits of growing bioenergy crops on marginal lands. Throughout this project they will: (i) quantify on-site phytoremediation of biofuel crops, (ii) evaluate runoff related to biofuel crops, and (iii) compare the life cycle environmental impacts of biofuels grown on marginal lands to petroleum fuels and traditional biofuels (i.e. soy biodiesel, corn ethanol).

The PIs at the University of Pittsburgh will partner with Alcoa Corp and a local nonprofit, GTECH Strategies, to form a unique collaboration. Alcoa Corp is involved in a mine reclamation demonstration at the Mather Mine site in PA. Alcoa is aiding in the evaluation of the use of alkaline clay to assist in reclamation. GTECH Strategies cultivates biofuel crops on vacant urban lands; their mission is to foster community growth in underserved communities through the creation of "egreen collar" jobs.

This project is unique not only for Pennsylvania, but for the water resources, water quality, and biofuels research community at large. The findings of the proposed research will inform the research community about the life cycle environmental benefits of alternative uses for marginal and vacant lands, and will also contribute to the literature and understanding of phytoremediation. The findings of the life cycle assessment will also contribute to the ever growing and highly debated body of LCA research on biofuels.

The proposed activities will have broad reaching impacts that serve the purpose of energy production, storm water management, nutrient management, water conservation, reclamation, and job creation in underserved communities. The impacts of the proposed research extend from contribution to the scientific study of biofuel crops to community engagement and empowerment through the collaboration with GTECH Strategies. The proposed project will directly aid in the increase of job opportunities in environmental justice communities through GTECHs green job corps program and will foster the growth of GTECH as a sustainable nonprofit. Clearly, the development of new strategies for sustainable biofuel production will aid in addressing national security issues and help the nation meet national 2010 fuel standards. In addition to the outreach inherent in the collaboration with GTECH, they also propose to continue to include a diverse set of students (REU, grad, and high school, via GTECH's green job corps) in the proposed research. They also have outlined an extensive plan for integration of the research partnership into the sustainability curriculum at Pitt.

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University of Pittsburgh
United States
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