Miscanthus can meet U.S.
biofuels goal using less land than corn or switchgrass
Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor
217-333-5802; [email protected]
View a narrated slideshow about Miscanthus research at the University of Illinois
Ill. — In the largest field trial of its kind in the United States,
researchers have determined that the giant perennial grass Miscanthus
x giganteus outperforms current biofuels sources – by a lot. Using
as a feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. could significantly
reduce the acreage dedicated to biofuels while meeting government
biofuels production goals, the researchers report.
The new findings, from researchers at the University of Illinois, appear this month in the journal Global Change Biology.
corn or switchgrass to produce enough ethanol to offset 20 percent of
gasoline use – a current White House goal – would take 25 percent of
current U.S. cropland out of food production, the researchers report.
Getting the same amount of ethanol from Miscanthus would
require only 9.3 percent of current agricultural acreage. (View a
about Miscanthus research.)
“What we’ve found with Miscanthus is that the amount of biomass generated each year would allow us to produce about 2 1/2 times the amount of ethanol we can produce per acre of corn,” said crop sciences professor Stephen P. Long, who led the study. Long is the deputy director of the BP-sponsored Energy Biosciences Institute, a multi-year, multi-institutional initiative aimed at finding low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Long is an affiliate of the U. of I.’s Institute for Genomic Biology. He also is the editor of Global Change Biology.
In trials across Illinois, switchgrass, a perennial grass which, like Miscanthus, requires fewer chemical and mechanical inputs than corn, produced only about as much ethanol feedstock per acre as corn, Long said.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to grow switchgrass because the yields we obtained were actually equal to the best yields that had been obtained elsewhere with switchgrass,” he said. Corn yields in Illinois are also among the best in the nation.
reason why Miscanthus
yields more biomass than corn is that it produces green leaves about
six weeks earlier in the growing season,” Long said. Miscanthus
also stays green until late October in Illinois, while corn leaves
wither at the end of August, he said.
The growing season for switchgrass is comparable to that of Miscanthus, but it is not nearly as efficient at converting sunlight to biomass as Miscanthus, Frank Dohleman, a graduate student and co-author on the study, found.
“One of the criticisms of using any biomass as a biofuel source is it has been claimed that plants are not very efficient – about 0.1 percent efficiency of conversion of sunlight into biomass,” Long said. “What we show here is on average Miscanthus is in fact about 1 percent efficient, so about 1 percent of sunlight ends up as biomass.”
“Keep in mind that when we consider our energy use, a few hours of solar energy falling on the earth are equal to all the energy that people use over a whole year, so you don’t really need that high an efficiency to be able to capture that in plant material and make use of it as a biofuel source,” he said.
Field trials also showed that Miscanthus is tolerant of poor soil quality, Long said.
“Our highest productivity is actually occurring in the south, on the poorest soils in the state,” he said. “So that also shows us that this type of crop may be very good for marginal land or land that is not even being used for crop production.”
Because Miscanthus is a perennial grass, it also accumulates much more carbon in the soil than an annual crop such as corn or soybeans, Long said.
“In the context of global change, that’s important because it means that by producing a biofuel on that land you’re taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil.”
Researchers at Illinois are exploring all aspects of biofuels production, from the development of feedstocks such as Miscanthus, to planting, harvest, storage, transport, conversion to biofuels and carbon sequestration.
in an agricultural setting has not been without its challenges, Long
said. Because it is a sterile hybrid, it must be propagated by planting
underground stems, called rhizomes. This was initially a laborious
process, Long said, but mechanization allows the team to plant about 15
acres a day. In Europe, where Miscanthus has been grown for
more than a decade, patented farm equipment can plant about 50 acres of
Miscanthus rhizomes a day, he said.
Once established, Miscanthus returns annually without need for replanting. If harvested in December or January, after nutrients have returned to the soil, it requires little fertilizer.
This sterile form of Miscanthus has not been found to be invasive in Europe or the U.S., Long said.
There are at least a dozen companies building or operating plants in the U.S. to produce ethanol from lignocellulosic feedstocks, the non-edible parts of plants, and companies are propagating Miscanthus rhizomes for commercial sale, Long said.
Although research has led to improvements in productivity and growers are poised to begin using it as a biofuels crop on a large scale, Miscanthus is in its infancy as an agricultural product, Long said.
“Keep in mind that this Miscanthus is completely unimproved, so if we were to do the sorts of things that we’ve managed to do with corn, where we’ve increased its yield threefold over the last 50 years, then it’s not unreal to think that we could use even less than 10 percent of the available agricultural land,” Long said. “And if you can actually grow it on non-cropland that would be even better.”
Editor’s notes: A PDF of the journal article is available online.
To reach Stephen P. Long, call 217-333-2487; e-mail: [email protected].
Rock Port, Missouri, First 100 Percent Wind-powered Community In
Rock Port Missouri, with a population of just over 1,300 residents, has announced that it is the first 100% wind powered community in the United States. Four wind turbines supply all the electricity for the small town.Rock Port’s 100% wind power status is due to four wind turbines located on agricultural lands within the city limits of Rock Port (Atchison County). The city of Rock Port uses approximately 13 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year. It is predicted that these four turbines will produce 16 million kilowatt hours each year.Excess wind generated electricity not used by Rock Port homes and businesses is expected to be move onto the transmission lines to be purchased by the Missouri Joint Municipal Utilities for use in other areas.University of Missouri Extension specialists say that there are excellent opportunities for sustainable wind power in northwest Missouri.There are currently 24 wind turbines in Atchison County, 24 in Nodaway County and 27 in Gentry County. MU Extension specialists say the wind farms will bring in more than $1.1 million annually in county real estate taxes, to be paid by Wind Capital Group, a wind energy developer based in St. Louis."This is a unique situation because in rural areas it is quite uncommon to have this increase in taxation revenues," said Jerry Baker, MU Extension community development specialist.The alternative-energy source also benefits landowners, who can make anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 leasing part of their property for wind turbines.Other wind energy companies are looking at possible sites in northwest Missouri, Baker said.A map published by the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that northwest Missouri has the state's highest concentration of wind resources and contains a number of locations potentially suitable for utility-scale wind development."We're farming the wind, which is something that we have up here," Crawford said. "The payback on a per-acre basis is generally quite good when compared to a lot of other crops, and it's as simple as getting a cup of coffee and watching the blades spin.""It's a savings for the community in general, savings for the rural electric companies, and it does provide electricity service over at least a 20-year time period, which is the anticipated life of these turbines," Baker said.Baker said the wind turbines attract visitors from all over, adding tourism revenue to the list of benefits.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Missouri Extension.
Rock Port, Missouri, First 100 Percent Wind-powered Community In U.S.
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