One Viable Solution, Miscanthus: A Perennial Energy Grass that Offers Much in the way
of Sustainability and High Density Energy...
By way of a research tour of an alternative energy research tour in Copenhagen, Denmark in June 2012, I had the opportunity to focus on a plant variety that has been used as biomass and researched in Europe for many decades.
The plant variety, Miscanthus, has long been valued as an ornamental grass but recently scientists have been attracted to one variety in particular, Miscanthus giganteous, which is a naturally occurring hybrid with a tremendous amount of energy potential.
A New Energy Source is on the horizon
It takes far less land to produce the same amount of energy as other crops…
Miscanthus giganteous requires fewer fertilizers & fewer pesticides.
It is energy grass that can provide more energy without taking up as much crop land as other biofuel crops like corn.
An energy grass that doesn’t require fertilizer once established, needs few pesticide applications, and the same plants can grow and produce energy for 25 or 30 years…
Miscanthus giganteus bio energy grass
"I'm confident that in the near future, farmers' incomes will be assured, not by subsidies and tariffs, but by market forces.“
U.S. Business Billionaire and Philanthropist, Ted Turner
(BBC News, 2006)
Within the United States, organizations like the Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Energy have provided sizable grants for the development of Miscanthus as a bioenergy crop as well as funding the market development.
Significant investments in Miscanthus include a USDA grant of 5.7 million dollars awarded to a company in 2011 and
British Petroleum funding research through the cooperative efforts of the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley with a $ 500 million dollar investment.
Governments are also leading the investments into biofuels by issuing mandates requiring the inclusion of biofuels in gasoline and diesel.
What is driving governments to issue biofuel mandates?
Around the globe governments are striving to create what they call “Energy Independence” by reducing the importation and dependency on foreign oil.
Motivations to do so generally derive from two main concerns:
One, Oil is a politically volatile commodity among nations that import oil due to insufficient domestic production.
Two, an international desire exists to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution.
(Note: Scientists still argue over the exact effects of CO2 pollution, whether they attribute the pollution to increases in global temperatures or changes in local weather patterns for example, but regardless of the debate, governments are taking action and requiring a reduction in crude oil use and stipulating a dilution of gasoline content so that it includes various percentages of biofuel generated from non-crude oil sources.)
Despite doubts of the public in plant based bio fuels, gas and oil companies and even utility companies around the world are under governmental requirements to include biocrops or bioenergy in their offerings for their energy mix.
Year 2022 goals for the U.S. stipulate that biofuels must comprise 36 billion gallons of the liquid fuel mix.
Out of an estimated demand for 180 billion gallons, this biofuel requirement comprises 20% of the expected fuel demand, so supporting research efforts to extract efficient and effective use of the biofuels with consideration of their potential environmental impact are critical.
Perhaps of even greater concern for governments and many scientists as well, is the significant increase in human population around the world.
The rapid pace of industrialized development of many nations around the world, along with the potential environmental impacts of both population and industrialization growth has severely compromised our natural resources and has significantly increased the amount of waste we all produce through our day-to-day lifestyles.
As a consumptive, growing society, our appetite for energy is growing each minute and everyone seems to have an opinion as to the best way to solve our energy challenges. Minimalists, for example advocate the reduction of energy use by reducing our use of energy-consuming products; however this lifestyle is simply unacceptable to most people around the world.
The good news is that plants and other vegetation play a vital role in maintaining the balance in atmospheric gases (Botanic Gardens in Conservation, 2008, p. 3) which can also have an impact on climate changes, including temperature changes.
Plants use carbon dioxide to function just as we use oxygen. And while humans engage in activities that release carbon dioxide, plants for a long period of time, can absorb the carbon dioxide we produce.
University of Illinois professor, climate change expert, and Miscanthus researcher, Dr. Stephen Long (2010) encourages the planting of bio-energy crops that beneficially consume more carbon dioxide in its lifetime than is produced when creating a fuel with that same crop. This is often referred to as carbon sequestration.
Throughout our human history, energy technology has advanced very slowly but (climate changes, increases in carbon dioxide emissions, increased deforestation, increased human populations and the subsequent) a world-wide increase in the demand for energy means that we need to quickly improve our energy systems.
Beginning in the 1990s, the United States began to prominently use plant sources for liquid fuel production.
These fuels made the most out of rapidly available sugars in plant material and the processing is generally referred to as “First Generation.”
First generation crops are often confused with the food vs. fuel debate because first generation crops, being high in sugar, are generally speaking, food products. This includes sugar cane and corn. In the U.S.; however, the type of corn used for fuel crops is a different type, or variety as it is called, than the corn we normally eat. So First Generation biofuels refer more specifically to the type of processing the bioenergy crop undergoes to access its stored energy.
Recently, U.S. industries have become more concerned with first generation biofuels and so we’ve been transitioning to foods that are not normally in our mainstream food cycle, but consequently, have stored energy that is more difficult to extract.
These biofuels are often called Advanced, Second Generation, or to use their botanic terms, cellulosic fuels. They have a much greater potential, but they still require more technological advances to use them on a large scale. Our crop featured in this presentation, Miscanthus, is considered a second generation biofuel.
Just as American adoption of the biofuel corn ethanol was underway, controversial publicity pummeled the corn crop and those in the corn ethanol industry.
One of the most common debates surrounded the alleged controversy that corn ethanol crops competed with food crops and drove the price of food to higher levels around the world. This debate is often referred to as “food” vs. “fuel” debate.
The Food vs. Fuel argument has led many Americans to prematurely abandon the idea of corn crops for fuel and even skepticism over the use of any plants as a fuel source.
Arguably, unrelated increases in food prices (the food spike because of fuel crops has been countered by a number of extenuating circumstances including crop loss due to drought (particularly the case for rice), and economic inflation coupled with a decline in the global economy are all likely contributors to the increase in global food prices that began in 2007)
Corn ethanol and sugar cane ethanol bio-energy crops are the most well known biofuel additives and/or substitutes but recent science and large scale market implementation of these fuel sources has elucidated the weaknesses in these two bio-energy crops.
Energy Output Reports for other bio-fuel crops demonstrate that Second Generation biofuels, which includes woods like the willow tree, another prairie grass known as switchgrass, and Miscanthus produce significantly higher output potentials.
The data in this study demonstrated an energy output for corn at 15 units. Compare that to Miscanthus, which was 191, or more than 12x the energy output of corn. (Hastings, A. 2009, p. 10).
Energy intensity measurements do vary (somewhat but as we will see, the energy output of Miscanthus is just one of its viable characteristics) depending on scientific methods for measurement, biocrop processing, and even the types of energy. For example, in the comparison in the Hastings report, energy units are compared between ethanol, biodiesel, biogas, and co-fired biomass. These different energy utilization methods are at varying stages of technological efficiency, which may have bearing on the final output of energy as compared to particular types of crops. Miscanthus research is still needed to determine its liquid energy fuel efficiency.
Miscanthus giganteus is a grass that grows year after year without the need to be replanted (this is called a perennial energy grass) - which saves not only on labor but also on the amount of fossil fuel associated with plant cropping.
Miscanthus x giganteus or Miscanthus as referred to here, originated in Japan and was brought to Europe in 1935. Researchers in Europe have been growing Miscanthus since and often use the grass for biomass heat production. Other varieties of Miscanthus have been grown as ornamental grasses for gardens. Beginning in the 1980s, scientists discovered that Miscanthus giganteus grows better in the United States beginning in areas around Illinois and into the eastern U.S.. When grown in these regions, Miscanthus proves to be the sustainable bio-energy crop we’ve been looking for.
Miscanthus can be burned to create heat and electricity or it can be treated with enzymes to produce sugars that can become processed into cellulosic (or second generation) ethanol (Pyter, et. al. n.d., p. 1).
One reason Miscanthus contains more energy than many other crops is because of it’s long growing season. Even in colder climates like Illinois, it begins growing in early to late April and continues through the first winter frost which in this part of the country, is usually in October (Pyter, et. al. n.d., p. 2).
The environmental record for Miscanthus is excellent compared to its current biocrop competitors.
It takes about 3 years to establish Miscanthus and once the crop is established, farmers do not need to continue to apply fertilizer.
The reduced amount of fertilizer use means that the waters around Miscanthus crops remain much cleaner than bioenergy crops which require repeated fertilizer applications.
Corn is an annual crop, so it is re-planted every year, which means that the soil is often disturbed, leading to soil erosion. Soil erosion is a major environmental concern because the soil loss can lead to nutrient loss and pollution of nearby water sources.
Because Miscanthus is a perennial crop, it does not have nearly as much soil erosion as a corn field.
Miscanthus giganteus, while tolerating cold temperatures, like those found in Illinois and Minnesota, requires fairly moist growing conditions so it is best to avoid planting Miscanthus where it may experience drought conditions.
For dry climates, the other prairie grass, switchgrass, may be a better crop choice.
So, for example, to use our “Analysis of the site” model, we may consider that, for dry climates, selecting a drought-tolerant energy crops may be a better choice.
Studies in the U.S., Europe, and China reveal that Miscanthus has tremendous potential to become a leading bio-energy crop because of its environmentally-positive growth characteristics.
Miscanthus is clearly in the lead.
The energy output of Miscanthus is 2x that of switchgrass, its closest known bio-energy crop competitor.
And Miscanthus has 12x output of corn, presently the most prevalent biocrop used in the United States.
Because of Miscanthus’ other sustainable and environmental benefits, it is a crop that can become popular with the public, governments, farmers, and energy providers.
References Consulted for this survey research
Alter, Alexandra, 2009. Yet Another ‘Footprint’ to Worry About: Water. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 29 October 2011 from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123483638138996305.html
Anderson, E., Hager, A.G., Voigt, T. and Bollero, G.A. Herbicide Phytotoxicity and Eradication Studies in Miscanthus x giganteus. 6th Annual Bioenergy Feedstocks Symposium January 13-14, 2009. Department of Crop Sciences and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from http://miscanthus.illinois.edu/symposium/2009/jan_14/05b_Anderson.pdf
BBC News, 2006. Biofuels 'answer' to trade talks: US tycoon Ted Turner has said a focus on biofuels could break the current deadlock stalling world trade talks, BBC News. Retrieved 10 July 2012 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/5377652.stm
Blackburn, W.R. (2007). The Sustainability Handbook: The Complete Management Guide to Achieving Social, Economic and Environmental Responsibility, Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute
Botanic Gardens in Conservation (BGCI) (May 2008). Plants and Climate Change: Which Future? Retrieved from http://www.bgci.org/files/Worldwide/climate_change.pdf
Butamax Advanced Biofuels, LLC (January 2010). California Biobutanol Multimedia Evaluation Tier I Report. Retrieved from http://www.arb.ca.gov/fuels/multimedia/020910biobutanoltierI.pdf
CASLIN, B., FINNAN, J., McCRACKEN, A. 2010. Miscanthus Best Practices Guidelines. Teagasc and the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute. Retrieved from http://www.afbini.gov.uk/miscanthus-best-practice-guidelines.pdf
Crowell, Susan, 2011. Ohio Firm Gets USDA Biomass Grant . Retrieved from http://www.farmanddairy.com/news/ohio-firm-gets-usda-biomass-grant/26289.html
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Hastings, Astley, 2009. The European Potential to Produce Bio-energy: Miscanthus Potential for Current and Future Climates. University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Retrieved from http://talks.cam.ac.uk/talk/index/16078
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Juvik, J., Kim, H.S., and Ibrahim, K. Miscanthus Breeding Improvements. 2007 Symposium on Biomass Feedstocks for Energy Production in Illinois. 2007. Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://miscanthus.illinois.edu/wp-content/uploads/2007/01/dr_juvik_miscanthus_symposium.pdf
Khanna, M., Dhungana, B., Clifton-Brown, J., Costs of producing miscanthus and switchgrass for bioenergy in Illinois. Biomass and Bioenergy. Volume 32 ( 2008 ), pp. 482 – 493.
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Yan, J., et al. Variability and adaptability of Miscanthus species evaluated for energy crop domestication. GCB Bioenergy (2011), doi: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2011.01108.x Retrieved from http://plantbiology.msu.edu/files/Miscanthus%20domestication%20GCBB%20online.pdf
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