What if Making Biofuel Means Growing Dangerous Invasive Species?

The same qualities that make a good biofuel crop are also hallmarks of species that crowd out native plant life.

The same characteristics that make a good biofuel stock also make successful weeds. The next generation of biofuels won’t come from corn, but from cellulose-rich plants—grasses, algae, and reeds—and those most suited for biofuel production might be those that are “fast-growing, highly productive, highly competitive, self-propagating or able to regrow rapidly,” a report from the National Wildlife Federation suggests.

“Unfortunately, many invasive species, by their very nature, exhibit these qualities as well,” researchers Aviva Glaser and Patty Glick write in the report.

So far, biofuel production hasn’t been good for biodiversity. Expansive fields of corns do provide particularly good habitats for a wide variety of species, and expanding biofuel production has transformed tracts of grassland and forest into monocultures. But as the industry moves away from corn, there could be an opportunity to cultivate a more biodiversity-friendly brand of biofuel production—if the plants chosen for the purpose aren’t expansion-minded invasive species that threaten the natives.

The NWF report highlights a slew of invasive species that are grown as biofuel crops or could be soon. Reed canarygrass, which has overtaken wetlands and lakes, could be planted in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. One algae under consideration has choked bodies of water in the Great Lakes region with toxic algae blooms. BP is developing a variety of elephant grass, which can grow 10 feet tall and which the NWF report calls “one of the most problematic weeds in the world,” for cultivation all along the Gulf Coast. “We have a lot of scientists that we work with,” says Glaser. “They were hearing about these crops being grown and they have concerns about them.”

Hardy plants like these might be grown with the best intentions, but the plants have an agenda of their own: to spread and multiply. Invasive plants can push out native species and threaten the livelihoods of people who depend on them. And once in place, they’re almost impossible to eradicate.

In fact, the tenacity of invasive species already thriving has made them potential targets for biofuel production. If the masses of kudzu that have taken over the southeastern United States could be turned into biofuel, there’d be a financial incentive to start dealing with it. The ideal model for turning existing invasive species into biofuels could be to use mobile units to process the plants. (Otherwise, the owner of a kudzu field could have a perverse reincentive to replant the problematic plant.)

But the NWF report also highlights biofuel projects that are moving beyond corn without using invasive species. The Show Me Energy Cooperative in Missouri, for instance, is using a mix of native plants as biofuel stocks. Projects like these can improve biodiversity, instead of destroying it as invasives could—not only in fields feeding biofuel production but in the surrounding areas.

“With any of our energy choices, we have to be aware of the risks that are involved in those choices,“ says Glaser. “There's really great potential for bioenergy… if it's done right. Once a species becomes invasive, it's often too late. We have unique opportunity right now to prevent a problem.”

Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Between Alexa, Siri, and Google, artificial intelligence is quickly changing us and the way we live. We no longer have to get up to turn on the lights or set the thermostat, we can find the fastest route to work with a click, and, most importantly, tag our friends in pictures. But interacting with the world isn't the only thing AI is making easier – now we can use it save the world, too.

Keep Reading Show less
Good News

An anonymous White House official claims President Trump cruelly limited Hispanic immigrants in their new book, "A Warning."

The book, to be released on November 19, gives an alleged insider account of the Trump White House and paints a picture of the president as a chaotic man who lacks the mental and moral acumen required for the job.

The anonymous staffer says that Trump once feigned a Hispanic accent and made fun of women attempting to immigrate to the U.S.

Keep Reading Show less
via KTVU / YouTube

The 63-year-old Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, currently branded the RingCentral Coliseum, is one of the most decrepit sports venues in America.

The home to the the NFL's Oakland Raiders (until they move to Las Vegas next season) and MLB's A's, is notoriously known as the Black Hole and has made headlines for its frequent flooding and sewage issues.

One of the stadium's few positive aspects is its connection to public transportation.

Keep Reading Show less
Hero Video
Yad Vashem

Since 1992, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous has been holding reunion ceremonies between Holocaust survivors and rescuers once a year. But the tradition is coming to an end, as many have died or are too frail to travel. What might be the last reunion of its kind took place when a 92-year-old woman met up with the two surviving family members that she helped hide during the Holocaust, and their descendants.

Sarah Yanai and Yossi Mor introduced Melpomeni Dina (nee Gianopoulou) to their almost 40 family members, all decedents of the Mordechai family, the family of seven that Dina and her two sisters hid during WWII. "There are no words to describe this feeling," Dina told the Jeruselum Post. "It is very emotional for us to be together again."

Keep Reading Show less
via Facebook / Autumn Dayss

Facebook user and cosplayer Autumn Dayss has stirred up a bit of Halloween controversy with her last-minute costume, an anti-Vaxx mother.

An image she posted to the social network shows a smiling Dayss wearing a baby carrier featuring a small skeleton. "Going to a costume party tonight as Karen and her non-vaccinated child," the caption over the image reads.

Keep Reading Show less