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Agronomy Day 2007

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Miscanthus and Switchgrass Trials for Alternative Energy in Illinois

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Frank Dohleman Frank Dohleman
Graduate Research Assistant
Department of Plant Biology
(217) 244-6317
Steve Long Steve Long
Robert Emerson Professor
Departments of Crop Sciences
and Plant Biology
(217) 333-2487

In Illinois, traditional energy sources include coal, oil, and nuclear power. Ever increasing prices of traditional energy have caused substantial interest in locally produced energy sources that can reduce reliance on energy that originates outside of Illinois. Wind, corn-based ethanol, and soybean-based biodiesel are all examples of locally produced alternative energy sources.

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Other potential energy sources that have been outlined by President Bush and the U.S. Department of Energy include crop residues such as corn stover and wheat straw as well as dedicated plants, primarily perennial grasses, which are burned to produce heat and electricity or treated with enzymes to produce sugars that can then be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. In his 2007 State of the Union address, President Bush called for the production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol to be produced domestically by the year 2017 from a combination of corn grain and cellulosic feedstocks.

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One such biomass feedstock is the U.S. native prairie plant, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Switchgrass is currently being used in the Midwest to produce burnable biomass and is being touted as a likely source of cellulosic ethanol and has been mentioned in the past two State of the Union speeches. In addition to switchgrass, researchers at the University of Illinois are studying another grass, Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus). Miscanthus has been widely studied and grown in Europe where it is being used to produce biomass to burn for heat and electricity.

The potential for using Miscanthus as an alternative energy source in Illinois appears to be great: in side-byside studies at three Illinois locations, Miscanthus has produced more than double the biomass of switchgrass per acre. Miscanthus also has the potential to produce double the ethanol of corn per acre. Furthermore, once a Miscanthus stand is established, the only necessary farm operation is harvest!

  Harvestable Biomass (tons/acre) Ethanol Production (gallons/acre) 2 Million acres needed for 35 billion gallons of ethanol % of 2006 harvested cropland nedded for 35 billion gallons 1
Corn grain 1 4.6 456 77 24.7
Corn stover 2 3.0 300 117 37.6
Corn Total 7.6 756 46 14.9
Switchgrass 5.6 563 62 20.1
Miscanthus 14.1 1410 25 8.0
Sources: 1 USDA-NASS, 2 U.S. Department of Energy

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