Led by Professor Gail Taylor, an expert on plants and the environment at the University of Southampton, a team of scientists across the UK will track the path of carbon, captured by plants and grasses through the process of photosynthesis, as it flows through the plant to the soil, which is inhabited by micro-organisms, before becoming locked into organic matter in the soil in which the plant is growing.
The team will also compare the process with that of arable food crops, such as wheat, and will test the idea that the 'bioenergy' crops are better at stimulating long-term retention of soil carbon.
Unlike existing food crops that are harvested after just a few months, trees and grasses can spend decades growing before they are harvested and release their trapped CO2, making the process more effective.
"Scientists now believe that CO2 is an important greenhouse gas and a major cause of climate change, so it's vital we develop ways of removing it from the atmosphere," comments Professor Gail Taylor, of the University's School of Biological Sciences.
"Using trees and grasses is an efficient and cost-effective way of doing this, whilst providing a source of energy and off-setting CO2 emissions from equivalent fossil fuels. Our research has already shown that bioenergy crops could potentially reduce carbon emissions by several million tonnes in the UK over the next decade."
'Carbon opportunity' maps will be developed to identify the optimum areas of the countryside in which bioenergy crops could most effectively be grown. The crops could then be combusted alongside coal in power stations to produce electricity, producing fewer CO2 emissions than fossil fuels, or used in heating systems.
"In the future, bioenergy crops could be turned into liquid fuels such as bioethanol, avoiding the conflict between food and fuel when grain crops are used for these purposes," adds Professor Taylor.
The project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of its Living with Environmental Change research programme.
The research team comprises scientists from the University of Southampton, University of Warwick, Rothamsted Research Centre for Bioenergy and Climate Change, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the University of East Anglia, the University of Edinburgh and the Aberystwyth University.