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The Storm Surge Protectors Blog

A Salty Solution? Using Wetland Plants for Bioenergy

May 28, 2021

From a distance Salicornia virginica, also known by the common name American glasswort or Pickleweed, is a rather unassuming wetland species. However, upon further investigation, you will realize that there is far more to this little plant than meets the eye! Pickleweed is a halophytic, succulent perennial dicot native to the intertidal salt marshes of North Carolina. It has many adaptations that allow it to survive in salt-stressed conditions which has piqued the interest of scientists in their search for a sustainable bioenergy crop.

Salicornia virginica at the Wrightsville Beach SSP Field Site

Production of biofuels has historically been reliant on the use of plant sugars and grains. This method of biofuel generation has caused concern since those plant products are used as animal feed or food for human consumption. It has been argued that a shift to production of biofuels using traditional crops will cause food shortages, rising food prices, and depletion of agricultural resources. Due to soil salinization and a global depletion of freshwater resources, the mass production of crops for biofuel seems to be an unsustainable solution. In response to these concerns, scientists have shifted their focus to halophytic vegetation species such as the humble Salicornia virginica.

Though it is a low-growing plant, Pickleweed rises above its competition in terms of its suitability to produce biofuel. Pickleweed can tolerate high salinity conditions, so it can be irrigated with seawater and will not deplete limited freshwater resources. Additionally, it has an ideal chemical composition - the seeds of this succulent are composed of roughly 30% extractable oil for bioenergy applications. In comparison, soybeans only contain 17 – 20% extractable oil, which makes pickleweed even more desirable. The next time that you visit the Wrightsville Beach Storm Surge Protectors field site, check out the Pickleweed growing alongside the path and get to know this species – it might just be the key to a more sustainable future powered by bioenergy.

Kumar A., Abraham E., Gupta A. (2018) Alternative Biomass from Saline and Semiarid and Arid Conditions as a Source of Biofuels: Salicornia. In: Kumar A., Ogita S., Yau YY. (eds) Biofuels: Greenhouse Gas Mitigation and Global Warming. Springer, New Delhi.
Sharma R, Wungrampha S, Singh V, Pareek A, Sharma MK. Halophytes As Bioenergy Crops. Front Plant Sci. 2016;7:1372. Published 2016 Sep 13. doi:10.3389/fpls.2016.01372 

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