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Biology professor studies alternate fuel source

Dr. Aspinwall with switchgrass
“Tough, tolerant and promising.” That is how Dr. Mike Aspinwall, biology professor at UNF, describes switchgrass, a native plant species he is researching. According to Aspinwall, the plant is adaptable to many climates, grows well without fertilizer and is considered by many to be a leading candidate for plant-based biofuel production.

“We are facing some unprecedented challenges when it comes to climate and energy,” Aspinwall said. “One of the main reasons that we are thinking about the importance of switchgrass is because it can help us move away from fossil fuels.” Aspinwall said that the U.S. Department of Energy has taken interest in using switchgrass as an alternative option for fuel in its past research studies.

Aspinwall’s research took a giant leap forward in June with the award of a $462,500 grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture to study the grass. The research, which begins in the spring/summer of 2020 and concludes in 2022, will take place at sites in Texas, Missouri and Michigan. At each location, Aspinwall and fellow researchers from Michigan State University, University of Missouri and the University of Texas at Austin will be measuring how the plant’s photosynthesis and respiration respond to different temperatures.

His previous research proved that switchgrass populations growing in climates ranging from cool to warm show predictable differences in productivity. Though he won’t study how to convert switchgrass to ethanol, he will seek to determine how these populations respond or adjust to changes in temperature. This understanding could help improve the forecasting of switchgrass productivity over space and time.

“If we are able to see that some easily adjust, or some adjust better than others, we could use that information to make sure that switchgrass is capable of being sustainable as the climate gets hotter,” Aspinwall said.

He believes that the future of switchgrass can not only help the planet, but also the economy. “If we want to make the future greener and ensure the planet is healthy enough for us to live in, then we have to come up with alternative ways to producing energy,” Aspinwall said. “If we can produce our own fuel in the United States, that advancement could benefit our country and reduce our dependency on foreign markets.”