A tall sterile grass from Japan may be the ideal plant to produce biofuel, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is spearheading research on that possibility as part of a $500 million initiative called Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), funded by energy giant BP.
The researchers are studying a promising plant called Miscanthus x giganteus, a grass that can grow to 13 feet tall. A native of Japan, giant miscanthus was previously used as a landscape ornamental in the U.S. before being considered as a bioenergy crop. It has many characteristics researchers look for in an ideal feedstock for the production of cellulosic ethanol: it has a low need for fertilizer, produces large amounts of biomass per acre, is able to adapt to a wide range of temperatures, and is sterile and non-invasive.
“Our particular goal is to produce the most feedstock, or yield the most biomass, per acre or hectare, with the fewest inputs, causing the least environmental damage,” said Tom Voigt, associate professor of crop sciences at UIUC and the head of the feedstock development and agronomy program at EBI. Miscanthus checked all those requirements.
Giant miscanthus has both economical and environmental qualities the scientists seek for second generation biofuel factories in worldwide locations, said Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed University Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at UIUC and the deputy director of EBI.
Giant miscanthus seems to be a far more attractive option than crops currently used for ethanol production, such as corn. Corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, which contribute to the release of nitrous oxide, N2O, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Excess fertilizer can also leach out of the soil, contaminate groundwater and lead to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Corn aroduces less biomass per area than giant miscanthus and require more land to produce the same amount of ethanol. Giant miscanthus is a perennial plant, unlike corn and soybean, meaning it does not need to be replanted annually, lessening the nutrient depletion of the soil.
For well-known crops such as corn, there is a long history of research and knowledge on cultivation methods and what can be expected. With bioenergy crops, there is not that base of knowledge; much of the research being done now at EBI is the first of its kind in the U.S., explained Voigt.
Switchgrass is another promising bioenergy crop being studied at EBI. However, though switchgrass grows from Texas up to Canada, giant miscanthus outperforms it in terms of biomass production in the central U.S., making it an attractive crop for the Midwest.
A challenge to the economic use of giant miscanthus and other bioenergy crops is the low price of natural gas. Unless the U.S. puts in place a policy requiring a specific quota for renewables in power generation, as many European countries have done, there will be lower demand for bioenergy crops. However, EBI is primarily focused on the market of converting the crops to liquid fuel, which natural gas would not compete with so easily, said Long.
EBI is the largest private-public partnership of its kind between BP, University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UIUC, and was formed to spur bioenergy development and fossil fuel bioprocessing research. As part of EBI, researchers at UIUC are funded for 10 years to investigate feedstock and biofuel production.
Though many institutions are researching feedstock development for ethanol, EBI is singular in its breadth of projects and size of funding.
“I think one of the things that makes us fairly unique … [is] the broad range of activities that we have here as a result of funding from BP,” Voigt said.
Though BP provides the entirety of the funding, the research produced is the property of the institutions involved. BP has licensing privileges for the technologies created.