Plant skeletons: Weighing the environmental impacts of a byproduct of biofuel combustion | 5/30/2017 | Staff
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As a renewable resource, biomass presents an appealing alternative to fossil fuels for energy production. Burning plants, however, is not a completely clean process; it produces emissions that vary depending on the species used, the combustion conditions, and the air pollution controls.

To understand one component of these emissions, an international, multidisciplinary team led by University of Pennsylvania mineralogists used highly sensitive microscopy to study phytoliths, small deposits of minerals containing silicon or calcium present in certain plants. These chemical elements are absorbed from the soil along with other nutrients. The phytoliths lend plants strength and structure and are common in some plant families commonly used for biofuel, such as grasses.

Industrial - Crops - Products - Researchers - Phytoliths

Reporting in Industrial Crops and Products, the researchers found that phytoliths remain after plants are burned in a biofuel combustion facility but in particle sizes large enough that they likely don't pose a health risk. But because phytoliths can reduce the efficiency of energy conversion, power plants must factor them into their operations, the team notes. On the other hand, the phytolith-containing ash resulting from combustion could be sold for use in cement production or as fertilizer.

"This is an interesting topic because biomass burning can have a lot of benefits but also some unintended consequences," says Reto Gieré, an environmental scientist at Penn and senior author on the study. "We need to think of such consequences when we want to apply these methods at a large scale."

Skeleton - Plants - Phytoliths - Field - Archaeology

Known as the skeleton of plants, phytoliths are mostly studied in the field of archaeology; preserved phytoliths from ancient plants tell paleobotanists about prehistoric ecosystems and agricultural crops. But these residues are now proving interesting to engineers, geologists, and chemists who study the role of phytoliths during biomass combustion and their potential environmental impacts.

Gieré and Ruggero Vigliaturo, a postdoctoral researcher in Gieré's lab with expertise...
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