Press Release for Tuesday, June 4, 2019
UNF Researcher Awarded USDA Grant to Study Plant-Based Alternative Fuel Sources
Media Contact: Joanna Norris, Director
Department of Public Relations
As Americans burn through natural fuel sources,
the United States government continues to seek alternative local fuel sources
to lower our dependency on foreign oil and fossil fuels. Dr. Mike Aspinwall, an
assistant professor of biology at the University of North Florida, was just
awarded nearly half a million dollars from the USDA National Institute for Food
and Agriculture to study switchgrass as a viable plant-based biofuel.
who is the lead researcher of this project, will work collaboratively with scientists
from Michigan State University, University of Missouri and the University of
Texas at Austin. The study aims to
provide new insight into the factors that
regulate the productivity and sustainability of switchgrass and will be funded for three years from a
grant awarded to UNF totaling $462,500.
Switchgrass, which can grow as tall as six feet
in one year, is the leading candidate crop for plant-based biofuel production.
The U.S. Department of Energy started studying the species in the 70’s and 80’s,
and the U.S. government has been interested in using the species as an
alternative local fuel source to lower our dependency on foreign oil and fossil
“The project aims to determine
how genetics and the environment interact to influence processes that regulate
switchgrass productivity. Specifically, we’re examining how switchgrass
populations from cool and warm parts of the United States respond to changes in
temperature,” said Aspinwall, who noted his team will be examining how the
physiology of these populations responds to temperature at different sites,
specifically Michigan, Missouri and Texas.
As a native, wild species, switchgrass doesn’t
require many resources like fertilizer. But given that the species has a huge
range—Mexico to Canada, East of the Rockies—there’s tremendous genetic
variation within the species, says Aspinwall.
For example, switchgrass from Texas looks and
grows very different than switchgrass from Wisconsin. The differences are
partly due to the climate that the populations are adapted to. However, Aspinwall
and his team will be examining how adaptation to different climates influences
switchgrass’ ability to tolerate and respond to changes in temperature.
USDA grant will allow Aspinwall
to hire postdoctoral research scientists to
travel to the field sites. This team will be responsible for the majority of
the field sampling, which will involve the use of portable photosynthesis
systems, allowing Aspinwall and his team to measure temperature responses of
photosynthesis and respiration.
“We can then compare how temperature responses
change over space and time, and between different switchgrass populations,” he
a result of his research, Aspinwall ultimately hopes to
improve the understanding
and forecasting of switchgrass productivity over space and time; deliver
science-based knowledge for identifying switchgrass ‘genotypes’ capable of
maximum productivity under current climatic conditions, as well as
‘climate-ready’ genotypes capable of adjusting to warmer and more extreme
temperature conditions of the future; and provide data for bioenergy system
UNF, a nationally ranked
university located on an environmentally beautiful campus, offers students who
are dedicated to enriching the lives of others the opportunity to build their
own futures through a well-rounded education.