As alternative energy continues to gain momentum, renewable sources such as nuclear, solar and wind power are the usual options for replacing fossil fuels.
In North Carolina, however, another solution is sprouting on the side of the road.
In conjunction with a national program known as "FreeWays to Fuel" ( freewaystofuel.org), researchers at N.C. State University are working to grow canola and sunflower crops along the wasted edges of highways and other marginal areas.
The national program, which began in Utah and has spread across the United States, originally used municipal zones to plant crops for biofuels. Utah's first harvests are now being used to power Department of Transportation vehicles in Salt Lake County.
In North Carolina, Matt Veal, an assistant professor in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department at NCSU, has focused his research on sowing sunflower and canola crops. These powerhouse plants, whose seeds contain 50 percent oil, are excellent for biodiesel production. Once harvested, cleaned and crushed, they are put through a chemical process known as "transesterification" to obtain the fuel.
Already, researchers have grown successful harvests in experimental plots. In some cases, they have been able to produce 550 pounds of sunflower seeds and 40 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Ultimately, Veal hopes enough fuel can be made to power N.C. Department of Transportation vehicles.
"Our focus is biodiesel, and the Department of Transportation is a large consumer of biodiesel fuel," Veal said.
The department's equipment currently runs on "B20," a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum-based diesel fuel, which releases 20 percent less particulate matter into the air. Unmodified diesel engines can run safely on B20 without risking maintenance or performance issues, making it one of the more versatile blends.
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