Think that pollution from large-scale hog farms and producing ethanol as an alternative fuel are two unrelated problems? Think again.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that a tiny aquatic plant can be used to clean up animal waste at industrial hog farms and potentially be part of the answer for the global energy crisis. Their research shows that growing duckweed on hog wastewater can produce five to six times more starch per acre than corn, according to researcher Dr. Jay Cheng. This means that ethanol production using duckweed could be “faster and cheaper than from corn,” says fellow researcher Dr. Anne-Marie Stomp.

Corn is currently the primary crop used for ethanol production in the United States. However, its use has come under fire in recent years because of concerns about the amount of energy used to grow corn and commodity price disruptions resulting from competition for corn between ethanol manufacturers and the food and feed industries. Duckweed presents an attractive, non-food alternative that has the potential to produce significantly more ethanol feedstock per acre than corn; exploit existing corn-based ethanol production processes for faster scale-up; and turn pollutants into a fuel production system. The duckweed system consists of shallow ponds that can be built on land unsuitable for conventional crops, and is so efficient it generates water clean enough for re-use. The technology can utilize any nutrient-rich wastewater, from livestock production to municipal wastewater.

The researchers are currently setting up a pilot operation to show how their duckweed system would work. Waste from hog operations is a big problem, anything that offers a way out of that mess is a welcome development, and if it also takes some of the pressure off to plant nothing but corn, that’s a huge bonus. Here’s hoping some promising research works as well out on the farm as it has so far in the lab.