Feb 17, 2010

Giant Miscanthus - America's Heartland - Grass to Gas

University of Illinois researcher Dr. Tom Voigt is standing next to a test plot of miscanthus, an ornamental grass that scientists say may be a new plant source for creating ethanol. Long used in landscape design, miscanthus can grow more than 12 feet tall. Tom points out, "It's been used on golf courses to divide fairways from driving ranges. It's been used in large landscapes because it can be quite dominant. I've always said that this is a great grass if you've got a neighbor you don't like."
But there are lots of things that researchers here do like about miscanthus. According to Tom, once planted the thick stands of fast growing grass spread quickly through root- like structures called rhizomes. "We plant the rhizomes at about 42 to 43 hundred per acre. At that planting density, we can start to get a harvestable crop at the end of the third growing season."
This joint research project between the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley uses sophisticated equipment to monitor growth and field conditions. Dr.Voigt says researchers suggest miscanthus offers real options for energy alternatives. "It produces large volumes of biomass is another reason why we're looking at this species. It's adapted to our part of the country. So it's a grass that fits into the scheme of things here in Central Illinois."
Illinois is one of the top corn crop producing states in the nation, a significant portion of which already goes into ethanol production. So why grow miscanthus instead of more acres of corn? American will consume nearly 400 million gallons of gasoline everyday so replacing even some of that with ethanol would be an important part of the picture. Scientists in Illinois say that an acre of corn will yield about 475 gallons of ethanol while an acre of miscanthus will yield about three times that amount.
Researchers Tom Voigt and Dr. Stephen Long spend a good deal of time in the test fields. They are assessing everything from moisture needs to photosynthesis and also, how cellulose in the plant's woody stalks can effectively be chemically converted to sugars to create ethanol, just like corn. Dr. Long says, "You break that complex down to the sugars, then you ferment those to alcohol in the same way, of course, that we make beer. Once you've made the beer, you then distill off the alcohol and that is the fuel. And, of course, already in the Midwest about ten percent of our gas is ethanol from corn grains."
Researchers say while corn can yield more than 160 bushels per acre for ethanol, miscanthus yields 17 tons of material. In addition, it requires less work from farmers.
And according to Dr. Long, there's another benefit for growers, "For corn, you've got many more inputs. You've got to till the land every year or at least you've got to plant your corn every year. You've got to add a large amount of nitrogen. With miscanthus, we've achieved this 17 tons per acre without any of those inputs, so the cost to the farmer in the long term is a great deal less." Dr. Long maintains there are significant other benefits to grass alternatives like miscanthus, "A lot of motivation for growing a potential crop like this is to help to mitigate global change. So we're growing a renewable fuel, but we also want to add carbon to the soil as well. If we get a carbon gain into the system that is offsetting carbon we're adding to the atmosphere."
Miscanthus has been grown as a fuel in many parts of Europe for more than a decade. But there, the woody stalks that look like bamboo are harvested, burned and used to generate electricity. Doctors Voigt and Long say this research could reveal exciting new options. Dr. Voigt says, "My wife gives me a hard time because when I told her I wanted to study grass, she thought that was going to be somewhat of a frivolous pursuit and it's come back now to be much more positive than either of us ever anticipated." Dr. Long adds, "I think for 19 years, people thought I was crazy and now they're beginning to think. Perhaps there's something in this."

Illinois Fuel Facts
Illinois farmers already play a major role in "crop to fuel" alternatives. 17 percent of Illinois corn goes into ethanol production. That corn is used to make some 40 percent of the ethanol consumed in the United States.


Press Photos Album

Urbana Photos Album

Satellite Fields Photos Album

UIUC Public Affairs Video slideshow: “Miscanthus x giganteus Research”
Brainard, Jeffrey. “The Big Deals in Biofuels.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 April 2007.
A Minute with Stephen P. Long.” A Minute With, February 2007.
Miscanthus — A Solution to U.S. Dependence on Foreign Oil? ACES News, 25 April 2006.

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