A novel approach to use second generation biofuel crop plants (camelina sativa, Miscanthus giganteus, and Panicum virgatum) to remediate abandoned mine lands in Pennsylvania.

Open Access
Gerst, Edward Albert
Graduate Program:
Environmental Pollution Control
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
April 03, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Sairam V Rudrabhatla, Thesis Advisor
  • Phytoremediation
  • Biofuel Crops
  • Camelina sativa
  • Miscanthus giganeus
  • Panicum virgatum
  • Switchgrass
  • Acid Mine Drainage
We as humans should strive to develop ways for our impact on the environment to be minimized. In the past there has always been collateral damage to the environment during times when man was doing what they felt was necessary to harness available fuel resources. Barren and abandoned mine lands remind us of the coal waste left behind from mining operations. On these abandoned lands are the elemental remnants of what once took place. Dangerous levels of elements metallic elements include Silver (Ag), Arsenic (As), Barium (Ba), Cadmium (Cd), Chromium (Cr), Mercury (Hg), Lead (Pb), and Selenium (Se). These contaminants accompany Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Sulfur (S), and Aluminum (AL). Recently, scientists have explored the use of plants to naturally absorb toxic substances into their growth tissues through natural absorption of nutrients from the soil in which the plants live. This phenomenon is known as Phytoremediation. Our study focuses on phytoextraction, which is the use of plants to accumulate pollutants to remove metals or organics from the soil by concentrating them in the harvestable plant tissue parts. We chose to study three species of biofuel crops, Camelina sativa, Miscanthus giganteus, and Panicum virgatum. Each species has different characteristics that could prove useful in this research. Camelina sativa possesses the ability to fix nitrogen in there root zone. Miscanthus giganteus is very hearty and has a deep root structure. Panicum virgatum is also hearty and has long, fibrous and densely arranged roots. The basis of our investigation is to observe the abilities of aforementioned biofuel crop species extract heavy metals to phytoremediate marginal soils affected by mining operations. To test this hypothesis we chose soil from three locations upon the land holdings of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation (EPCAMR) whose office is located in the Borough of Ashley, Luzerne County, PA. We believe that each of these species of biofuel crops will respectively show favorable removal of heavy metal contamination in each of three experimental soil types. This experiment shall answer the following questions: 1. Which of the three (3) biofuel crops selected [Camelina sativa, Miscanthus giganteus, or Panicum virgatum] has the ability to survive in the marginal soils affected by mining operations? 2. Do any of the aforementioned species thrive in such conditions? 3. Do any of these biofuel crops have the ability to Phytoremediate soils with high concentrations of heavy metals? 4. Do any of the aforementioned plant species behave as a hyper-accumulator of any of the analytes studied? 5. What is the feasibility of using any of these plant species to phytoremediate the experimental soils and also as a source of energy following phytoextraction? Our experiment involved growing the biofuel crops in contaminated soils under greenhouse conditions. We tested the initial and final contaminant concentrations in the sample soils after plant growth. We also tested plant tissues at the end of the experiment for contaminant concentration in the plant tissues. This would indicate the level of phytoextraction which occurred. Our experiment displayed results that indicated that the soils were indeed reclaimed through the utilization of biofuel crops to phytoextract some of the heavy metal contaminants. There were also instances where hyper-accumulation occurred. We are hopeful that these results could lead to further investigation to determine the feasibility of field stage application. Future experiments should also be conducted to determine how the environmental impact when these biofuel products are combusted.