A Grass For Fuel: Miscanthus x giganteus

University of Illinois researchers are studying Miscanthus x giganteus as part of the U.S. Department of Energy/Sun Grant Feedstock Partnership and the EBI Feedstock Production/Agronomy Program with the objective of developing renewable, plant-based energy sources. Producing renewable, plant-based energy domestically can reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, capture and hold carbon in the soil, and provide opportunities for U.S. farmers to further their contributions to domestic energy production.

M. x giganteus is a warm-season, perennial grass native to Japan. Originally used as a landscape ornamental, it has been the subject of renewable energy research in Europe since the 1980s and in the U.S. since the early 2000s. Bioenergy research has focused on M. x giganteus because of high biomass production compared to other herbaceous crops suited to temperate regions. Being sterile, it is propagated asexually by dividing the clumps of belowground rhizomes, by using plugs originating from stems or rhizomes, and by micropropagation. While M. x giganteus is expensive to establish, plantings are expected to be productive for 12 to 15 years.

2nd season (2009) dry biomass yield

The original M. x giganteus trials in the DOE/Sun Grant Feedstock Partnership were planted in 2008 in Nebraska, Illinois, Kentucky, and New Jersey. A Virginia site was added in 2010. At all study sites, there are four replications with three nitrogen (N) treatments of 0, 60, and 120 kg N per hectare (0, 53, and 107 lbs N per acre) applied annually, using urea as the N source. At each site, there are 12 10-meter-square plots with 1 plant per square meter. The study is evaluating M. x giganteus survival in diverse locations and the interactions among growth, management, and environment. Following the 2008–09 winter, approximately 17%, 99%, 80%, and 100% of the first-year plants survived in Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, and New Jersey, respectively. Replanting was done as necessary in spring 2009.

In the EBI Feedstock Production/Agronomy Program we are also working with M. x giganteus in several studies. Since 2007, we have planted more than 20 hectares of M. x giganteus used for agronomic and production testing.We are looking at planting and establishment, fertilization, eradication, and weed control. At a more basic research level, we are evaluating the carbohydrate levels in M. x giganteus rhizomes, with the goal of increasing propagation and establishment success.

We are also continuing research that compares the yields of M. x giganteus and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) at 7 Illinois sites (Brownstown, DeKalb, Dixon Springs, Fairfield, Havana, Orr, and Urbana) and 10 sites in the eastern U.S. and Canada (Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Dakota,Wisconsin, and Guelph, Ontario). The work was initiated in 2002, when 3 Illinois sites were planted; 4 additional Illinois sites were planted in 2004, and the 10 sites outside of Illinois were planted in 2009. Yields have been variable, but in most instances, M. x giganteus yields in established plantings have been significantly higher than switchgrass yields.

Mean 2010 dry biomass yields at the University of Illinois

Finally, in replicated plots at the U of I Energy Farm, we are comparing yields of a "Cave-in-Rock" switchgrass, recreated mixed tallgrass prairie, and M. x giganteus. Corn–corn–soybean rotation plots are also growing at the Energy Farm, which enables us to compare the energy production of second-generation energy crops with traditional row crops. Yields in 2010 suffered from the mid- to late-season hot and dry weather. Moreover, the M. x giganteus plots were initially planted in 2008 at the same time the switchgrass and recreated mixed tallgrass prairie were planted, but all 5 replicated plots required replanting in 2009 and 2010 due to poor survival in the 2008–09 winter and poor plant density from the 2009 replanting.

Tom Voigt

Tom Voigt
Associate Professor and
Extension Specialist

DOE/Sun Grant Feedstock Parnership Collaborators:
Mark David, Bob Darmondy; graduate students: Gevan Behnke, Matt Maughan
EBI co-PIs:
Germán Bollero, D.K. Lee, Stephen Long, Michael Dietze, Gary Kling; graduate students: Eric Anderson, Rebecca Arundale, Bosola Oladeinde, Rob Miller, Andy Wycislo
Technical staff:
Allen Parrish, Travis Cleveland
Energy Farm Staff:
Tim Mies, Chris Rudisill