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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn mineralogists have conducted research to determine whether plant combustion could be a safe form of energy production, Penn Today reported.

The Penn-led team of global researchers looked at phytoliths, or plant skeletons, and the environmental effects of burning them. The study, published this month in the scientific journal Industrial Crops and Products concluded that plant combustion byproducts — small deposits of minerals containing silicon or calcium — do not pose a human health risk due to their large size.

Biomass combustion is often presented as an alternative to the burning of fossil fuels for energy production, but biomass burning also releases emissions. Researchers like Penn Earth & Environmental Science Department chair Reto Gieré, the study's senior author, were interested in the pros and cons of large scale implementation of biomass burning.

“This is an interesting topic because biomass burning can have a lot of benefits but also some unintended consequences,” Gieré told PennToday. 

Ruggero Vigliaturo, a postdoctoral researcher in Gieré's lab and first author on the study, used electron microscopy to study phytoliths sampled from Chinese silver grass and from a biomass power plant's cyclone, an air pollution control device. While the research team found the phytoliths are primarily composed of silica, which has been linked to respiratory problems through inhalation, the phytoliths themselves are too large to go deep into human lungs.

Beyond health consequences, phytolith emission has consequences for energy efficiency: The particles can accumulate to clog flue gas ducts — machines which help regulate greenhouse gas emissions in power plants. However, the researchers said these byproducts could be used for fertilizer or as a binder in cement production, reducing the cement industry's high carbon footprint. 

In future investigations, the researchers hope to use transmission electron microscopy to discover more details about phytolith composition, helping power plants refine air pollution control devices and fuel input. Due to varying phytolith profiles, however, researchers say they must continue to investigate plant species independently.

Other studies at Penn have also explored alternative energy development. A recent study by Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Christopher Murray focused on the sustainable and cost-effective storage of energy in fuel cells.