This plant could fix damage to our land and economy, says WVU researchers

Monongalia and Preston

MORGANTOWN, W.Va – Millions of acres of land in the Greater Appalachian region is barren and unusable due to damaging practices like strip mining. These areas are called marginal lands, and it’s difficult to grow crops here because there’s not enough nutrients in the soil. 

“What you see is a loss of forest land through the mountain top removal process and stripmining in general,” said Jenni Kane, Ph.D. Student at West Virginia University.

A WVU student checks the carbon levels in the soil where Miscanthus has been planted. This land is carbon poor and it’s difficult to grow crops here.

Researchers at WVU are currently working on ways to get those nutrients back so that we can reuse the land. It’s a crop called Miscanthus x giganteus. This plant brings more carbon into the soil, which will increase the soil quality. Miscanthus is also what is called a bioenergy crop, meaning it can be used to create a cleaner type of fuel.

“We are all using energy all the time, and there’s not a clear way to sustain that in a way that we have been previously. And by that I mean through the use of fossil fuels,” said Kane. “So we should care because this is our future and we should care because what we do with land throughout the future will affect the living conditions for humans and other animals.”

Miscanthus comes from these root-like structures called rhizomes. WVU researchers planted these to study the levels of carbon the plant brings to the soil.

“The project also has an economic side to it that if we can use these bioenergy crops to provide ecosystem service in either bioenergy or soil carbon storage, this can also provide jobs in rural areas of Appalachia and have a few other opportunities for income,” said Zachary Freedman, a professor and researcher at WVU.

The plants are expected to grow between 15 and 20 feet tall. They are sterile, which means that they don’t produce seeds. Instead, WVU researchers had to plant root-like stems called rhizomes. Miscanthus is a perennial plant, meaning it will come back year after year. 

“And once these plots are established, there are many more questions we can ask,” said Freedman. “And there’s very little known about the microbiology of this system. So we’re very much at the frontier of the microbiology of bioenergy ecosystems.”

Right now, WVU is working to grow the crops and researching how much carbon these plants put into the soil through a grant with the United States Department of Agriculture. More information can be found on WVU’s website.

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