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Will Detroit use vacant lots to grow weeds for biofuel?

Weeds might continue to overgrow on Detroit's vacant land. But now there might be a good reason for it: to grow weeds for biofuel.
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Written by Tyler Falk, Contributing Editor on

With Detroit's population at a 100-year low, and the city planning to consolidate neighborhoods, there's no shortage of vacant lots or ideas about what to do with them. Add another idea to the list: growing weeds for biofuel.

Jim Padilla Jr., the owner of The Power Alternative, a biofuel refinery based in Michigan sees potential in growing a weed called pennycress on Detroit's vacant land to produce biodiesel, Midwest Energy News reports. But it's not just the benefit of biodiesel that makes the idea attractive, there could be other benefits.

Padilla said the crops could be grown on vacant land in downtown Detroit and would serve a dual purpose — producing high-quality biodiesel and remediating land contaminated with heavy metals.

Pennycress naturally absorbs heavy metals as it grows, Padilla says, through a process known as phytoremediation. Because Detroit was once home to several lead smelters, much of the vacant land is contaminated. By growing pennycress for biodiesel, over time the sites would be cleaned up.

It sure beats the alternative.

“The alternative is to dig and haul (the contaminated soil) and move it somewhere else,” he said. “That cost is about $250,000 per acre. You can spend it there or you can phytoremediate, create jobs, clean it up, make biomass for power, and produce biodiesel.”

To explore the possibilities, Padilla has partnered with local organizations, the University of Detroit-Mercy and Michigan State University, which was just awarded $2.9 million for biofuels research by the U.S. Department if Agriculture.

It's a worthy idea, to be sure. Any project that's a net-gain for the struggling city should be considered. But is there really enough vacant land to make the project worthwhile? Or would the land be better served to continue growing the city's local agriculture scene? What about using the land for other renewable energy projects?

Do you think that using the vacant lots to produce biofuel is the best use of the land?

Photo: Andrew Jameson/Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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