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'Elephant grass' may be the next big biomass crop

Agriculture.com Staff 02/12/2007 @ 6:58am

If your corn is being processed into ethanol and your soybeans into biodiesel, your acreage unsuited for row crop production may soon be converted to production of miscanthus, a biomass crop that some researchers believe will help fill the shortfall in U.S. energy production.

Miscanthus is a large perennial grass used for energy production, but is more economically viable than the frequently mentioned switchgrass. It is currently used commercially in the UK to provide clean and affordable energy, and it is an environmentally friendly crop, which provides wildlife cover, sequesters carbon, and builds the soil.

It may also help build your bottom line. Don’t buy a new pickup truck yet just because you learned about miscanthus, because there is still research underway, and you’ll need to have a market for this product. But if you do your research, while markets are being developed, your train will arrive at the station about the time the station is built and ready to open for business. All aboard!

The research funding got a major boost recently with a $500 million grant from BP, an energy company formerly known as British Petroleum. The money will be used by the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley to refine bio-energy into a mature industry, and miscanthus will be part of that equation. Some of your questions can be answered by the Illinois miscanthus researchers who recently invited experts to share their findings about miscanthus and bio-energy research.

What is the stuff? Miscanthus is sometimes called elephant grass, indicating how big it gets. It is an infertile hybrid, which produces no pollen, so there are no GMO and invasive specie issues. It will grow over 12 feet tall and produce 10 tons of dry matter per acre.

What is the energy value? Miscanthus is being used to fire a furnace in a house on the University of Illinois campus. In this case pelletized miscanthus is being burned, as opposed to being converted to cellulosic ethanol, which is an alternative form of energy. Researchers calculated the cost of the energy at $5 to $6 per thousand BTUs.

What research is underway? One of the reasons BP selected Illinois for its grant was that researchers already have a six-year miscanthus project on-going. Included are:

  • agronomic trials to identify the best production areas
  • genetic improvement to breed and select new hybrids to insure genetic diversity
  • genetic engineering to improve crop quality and disease resistance
  • evaluation of carbon sequestration abilities and lowering greenhouse gases
  • determination of its ability to reduce nitrate flow into groundwater and its ability to utilize livestock waste
  • identification of how the crop will be planted (potatoes and horseradish)
  • identification of how the crop will be harvested (baling and silage chopping)
  • conversion to a biofuel
  • determination of profitability, based on locale of production
  • identification of how farms and communities will change with miscanthus production

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