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No Picture Available Emily Heaton
Graduate Research Assistant
Department of Crop Sciences
No Picture Available Frank Dohleman
Department of Crop Sciences
Fuel without the Fossils: Can Miscanthus Do for Coal What Ethanol Has Done for Gasoline?
Over the past two years, average national gas prices have increased by more than $0.75 per gallon. As this trend is predicted to continue, there has been more and more demand for renewable energy to come to the rescue. Corn ethanol now plays a major role as a green supplement for liquid fossil fuels like gasoline, and Illinois farmers now produce the second largest amount of ethanol in the nation. Is there a crop that farmers could use to supplement solid fossil fuels like coal in the same way?
Coal represents sunlight energy stored in plant biomass millions of years ago. Over time, this biomass decayed and the carbon from it concentrated into the energy rich fuel we use today. Can we shorten that process by producing plants that are already rich in carbon, like coal, but that we can grow and burn for energy today? The US Department of Energy has been looking for such plants for decades. Since the mid-1980's they have been breeding switchgrass, a native prairie plant, to be a high yielding energy crop to be used as a substitute or replacement for coal. When managed properly, switchgrass can produce a clean, high energy fuel, but so far yields have been too low to be profitable.
While switchgrass was being studied in the US, scientists in Europe were investigating another perennial grass: Miscanthus. In Europe, Miscanthus produced yields high enough to make it an economical fuel, and it has now been used for electricity production for years. In addition to high yields, Miscanthus has many more attractive qualities which are pertinent to the farming community. Miscanthus is a perennial, so once it has been planted, it grows back year after year. Once established, herbicide is unnecessary, as Miscanthus grows quickly in the spring and out-competes weeds. Furthermore, Miscanthus recycles its nutrients annually, and therefore produces high yields without annual inputs of nitrogen fertilizer. In addition to large amounts of clean fuel for very low inputs, Miscanthus also provides numerous ecosystem services such as soil quality improvement, wildlife cover and nutrient capture from groundwater and runoff. Miscanthus also has an extensive root system and stores significant carbon below ground, making it a valuable tool for carbon sequestration and carbon credits. Miscanthus is also a sterile triploid hybrid and can not produce viable seed, ensuring that this highly productive crop does not become a weed.
Surprisingly, prior to 2002, Miscanthus had never been tested in the US. The first side-by-side trials of Miscanthus and switchgrass in the US were established on the new South Farms at the University of Illinois in June, 2002. Both crops take 3 years to reach full stand maturity, and by August, 2005, Miscanthus yielded 25 tons/acre, more than twice as much as the 11 tons/acre produced by switchgrass. Based on this yield, Miscanthus could be a significant source of renewable energy. If Miscanthus were grown on 10% of Illinois farmland, it would provide 50% of the state's electricity, and at current energy prices would be highly profitable to Illinois' farmers!