Western Mail Profiles: Dr Elaine Jensen, Aberystwyth University

‘Grass – a great source of energy as we look to cut our carbon footprint’

Dr Elaine Jensen is a researcher at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University.

Little did I realise that when I quit my job in banking to go travelling I would end up here.

Off I was, having a lovely time travelling in India, when suddenly I felt convinced our use of the planet and its resources was unsustainable. I needed to respond, so I went to Aberystwyth to study environmental biology.

I’m now part of a large team developing sustainable energy for the future, using plants.

Fuel from plants is not a new thing – the Ford model T engine was designed to run on bio-ethanol. Nowadays, Formula 1 racing requires that more than 5% of fuel must be derived from plants.

At the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University we investigate the use of non-food species to provide alternatives to the fossil fuels we currently rely on, species such as perennial ryegrass, willow, seaweed and Miscanthus.

Miscanthus grows very well, exceeding heights of three metres even in the short Welsh growing season. Farmers already grow it in Pembrokeshire and use it to feed into locally placed biomass boilers to provide heat.

Miscanthus can tolerate much colder temperatures than its relatives sugar cane and maize, making it an ideal energy crop for northern Europe and parts of the US.

It is also perennial, producing a harvestable crop every year without the need for replanting and it recycles its own nutrients so growers don’t have to add fertilisers.

Much of the Miscanthus research at IBERS is aimed at improving yield so we can use land more efficiently, especially land unsuitable for arable crops.

My own project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, investigates the importance of flowering on yield.

We harvest Miscanthus in the spring when the nutrients have moved into the underground parts of the plant and we take off the above-ground parts, which are pretty much dead. We are investigating how flowering facilitates this process of nutrient recycling.

However, we also want the plants to grow for as long as possible, and when flowering starts the accumulation of leaves and stems stops.

We therefore think the optimum time for flowering is late in the season for maximum yield, while ensuring efficient nutrient recycling before winter.

We have screened flowering in a range of Miscanthus and found enormous diversity. This means we will be able to breed new varieties optimised to grow in a range of different environments.

The research is creating jobs and helping us generate our own energy while reducing our carbon footprint.

To contact Elaine please email fft@aber.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 26th September 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.