From the Ground Up

Science and Tech
January 25, 2013
You could say that watching grass grow is as exciting as, well, watching grass grow. But for Zack Valdez (B.S.’10), it is not only stimulating work but also the focus of his high-profile research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Zack Valdez (B.S. '10)

Zack Valdez (B.S. ’10)

Valdez, who began his graduate work at Baylor University after leaving St. Mary’s, was awarded the highly competitive three-year fellowship in April. He’s working on his doctoral studies at Baylor’s Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Valdez’s research has him keeping an eye on switchgrass, a common North American plant with the unique ability to retain large amounts of carbon. That property could make it an ideal biofuel source, and Valdez is investigating optimal conditions for its growth.

Switchgrass as biofuel diagram

Valdez spent this past summer in a switchgrass field in Michigan identifying the biochemical properties of soil samples taken from near the grass’ root. His objective was to gather data that will help him determine optimal fertilization and harvesting techniques to retain carbon once the grass is harvested. It is information that could also help farmers maximize production while minimizing environmental impact.

For years the biofuel sector has attempted to wean the nation’s dependence on oil, but corn, its main source, is not without flaws. Aside from requiring significant time, effort and space to cultivate, it’s notorious for depleting its soil of precious nutrients.

With switchgrass, the opposite is true. It is inexpensive, requires very little fertilization, and is suitable for farming in even the toughest conditions. An added bonus: It doesn’t dip into the global food supply like corn.

“When harvested for biofuel, the roots we leave underground are sort of a fertilizer within themselves because they hold a lot of carbon taken in from the plant’s natural respiration process,” Valdez explained. “We can grow switchgrass on lands that have been stripped of nutrients or are marginally developed.”

Alternative energy has become a passion for Valdez. He hopes his work with switchgrass is just one component of the larger endeavor to wean the U.S.’s oil dependence, and he hopes his work will contribute to it becoming a viable biofuel option.

“My hope is that we find some sort of alternate fuel we can use,” Valdez said. “I just want to save the world like everyone else.”

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