The Poplar Tree - A Popular Choice for Biofuel
Poplar trees have long been a used in landscape and reforesting projects due to their fast growth rate and resilience against pests and poor soil. Many species of butterfly and moth larvae feed on poplar leaves, so they already have an important role as a wildlife habitat. But now the poplar is auditioning to play a new role -- as a biofuel crop.
Researchers are impressed at the poplar’s potential to produce fuel while maintaining a small carbon footprint. Poplars are a sturdy crop and, in most cases, do not require pesticides or fertilizer. In fact, poplars have been found to flourish in polluted soil, and even clean contaminants from the soil of brownfields (a process known as phytoremediation). Another key advantage is that poplars can be pruned to harvest biofuel, instead of clear-cutting. Thus, a poplar grove can serve as a wildlife preserve and recreational parkland, as well as a biofuel crop.
One barrier to using trees to produce biofuel is developing a cost-effective way to break down cellulose. Fortunately, scientists are well on their way towards solving this puzzle. Another barrier is the slow growth of the poplar, compared with corn or soy, but scientists are working on that too. The National Science Foundation recently granted $3.2 million to the University of Maryland and Bowie State University to develop a high-yield hybrid "super poplar". Scientists in China and Israel formed a partnership last autumn to create poplar hybrids that are drought-resistant and tolerant to salty soils.
With the help of science, the poplar may soon be a reliable source of renewable, clean energy.