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High-yielding miscanthus for ethanol

A grass that can shoot 12 feet tall or more in a single season and form a clump 2 feet wide from a single rhizome could be grown on millions of acres of not-so-great Southern soils and hold one of the keys to billions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol production.

Developed over almost a dozen years of work by geneticist Brian Baldwin and his team at Mississippi State University, and dubbed Freedom for its commercial release “because it could help free us from oil,” can produce more than twice as much biomass for biofuels feedstock as switchgrass.

“Large-scale production of ethanol from cellulosic materials is something of a Holy Grail,” says Baldwin, professor of plant and soil sciences at MSU.

Production of foundation stock for Freedom (a patent is expected to be granted to MSU this year) has been licensed to turfgrass “Sodfather” Phillip Jennings at Soperton, Ga., whose alternative energy development business is SunBelt Biofuels. He has an exclusive license for the grass and began making foundation stock commercially available to growers this spring.

“Many researchers around the world have proven giant miscanthus works well at capturing energy from the sun for biofuels production,” Jennings said in announcing his agreement with MSU.

Just over three years ago, his company brochure notes, Jennings began researching giant miscanthus as a feedstock for biofuel production, “with the goal of leading the Southeast into the American consumer fuel market.

“Pound for pound, Freedom has a higher yield and produces more fuel than any other biofuels source. By planting it throughout the South, farmers and refiners can provide real competition to OPEC and begin exerting a real influence on the U.S. fuel market. If the state of Georgia planted miscanthus on one-third of the total farmable land in the state, it would quickly become the third largest producer of fuel in the world.”

With its deep root system, the Jennings brochure notes, the giant miscanthus plant can gain access to additional water and nutrients without the need for fertilizers or irrigation.

“Farmers can grow Freedom giant miscanthus with a profit potential of $100 per ton, or $2,000 per acre. Equivalent ethanol production is expected to be as much as 3,000 gallons per acre and needs no government subsidy to be profitable.”

Every month, the Jennings material notes, “The U.S. spends $30 billion on fuel from OPEC nations. One of the goals with Freedom giant miscanthus is to put the fuel market into the hands of local producers and begin taking control of a seemingly random market.

“To replace 20 percent of U.S. gasoline with biofuels in 10 years would require an estimated 35 billion gallons of ethanol. It is estimated that 20 million acres of giant miscanthus could provide feedstock for that level of production.”

Phillip Jennings Turf Farms, started in 1997, is now an international organization, with over 3,000 acres of grass in the U.S., with additional operations in Mexico, China, and Malaysia.

Freedom has consistently outperformed switchgrass by at least two-to-one, meaning that only half the acreage is necessary for the same amount of biomass, Baldwin says. Yields have averaged 18 tons to 20 tons in variety trials.

“We see a lot of potential in Freedom — it’s the most promising of the hundreds of miscanthus cultivars we’ve evaluated over the years, and it’s light years ahead of any of the other grasses,” he says.

A perennial that takes about three years for establishing a fully productive stand, Freedom thrives on marginal soils, is tolerant of drought and excessive rain, and needs few inputs once established.

The grass is cut in the fall after it has dried down and usually is put into big square bales for efficient transport. Because it is an attractive nesting habitat for migratory songbirds in the spring and summer, Baldwin says fall harvest allows baby birds to hatch and be gone before the grass is cut — “just another ‘green’ advantage of this grass.”

The development process has been so lengthy, he notes, because “this miscanthus doesn’t set seed; we’ve had to propagate it vegetatively, which is very time-consuming. We’re not yet at the point where we have large-scale production, but Jennings is moving ahead pretty rapidly in Georgia and the Carolinas, with plans for expansion into other areas.”

While most of the attention in recent years has been on ethanol production from corn — with not a little controversy about diverting large amounts of a food crop to energy production — Baldwin says the corn industry “has done a really good job on developing methods to increase the amount of ethanol from corn.”

Production of ethanol from sugar has been known for millennia, he notes, and Brazil now powers much of its private vehicle fleet with ethanol from sugarcane. It can also be made from the sugars in sweet sorghum and various fruits, or from starch crops such as cereal grains, potatoes, cassava, and of course, corn.

“But unlike Brazil, where the bagasse from sugarcane is burned to provide energy for distilling ethanol, in this country it’s done mainly with natural gas — so a lot of energy is used to produce the ethanol.”

While ethanol burns efficiently — thousands of “flex fuel” vehicles now on the road can run on ethanol/gasoline mixtures — and reduces particulates and the mono-nitrogen oxides that contribute to air pollution, miles-per-gallon are fewer than for gasoline.

In 1990, 4 percent of the U.S. corn crop went to produce 900 million gallons of ethanol. In 2008, 23 percent of the corn crop was diverted to ethanol, producing 6.5 billion gallons. In 2009, 30 percent of the corn crop produced 10 billion gallons-plus of ethanol. One bushel of corn will produce 2.75 gallons of ethanol.

“To replace large amounts of gasoline, we will need to have feedstocks that will allow alternative fuels to be produced as cheaply as possible and without diverting large amounts of food/feed crops,” Baldwin says. “Giant miscanthus has a lot of potential to be one of those feedstocks.

“We’re doing some work here at Mississippi State in producing ethanol from sugarcane and sweet sorghum, but the big problem in converting sugars to ethanol is that you lose about half the energy right off the bat in the fermentation process.”

Why the big push to produce ethanol from cellulosic materials?

“Cellulose is widespread and abundant,” Baldwin says — “everything from waste paper and cardboard to cultured plant materials such as hay, straw, stover, and wood. Cellulose is the most abundant form of fiber on earth. Importantly, cellulosic materials aren’t a human foodstock, and their use isn’t likely to affect food prices.”

Forests contain 80 percent of the world’s biomass, he notes, “but grasslands can generate biomass 10 times to 50 times faster. In the southern U.S., loblolly pines require 15 years to generate 12 tons of biomass per acre, while switchgrass can generate nearly that much in just one year, and giant miscanthus twice that much.”

Trees are relatively low in cellulose, Baldwin notes, because they contain 30 percent to 50 percent lignin, which supports the tree. “Lignin is highly resistant to chemical conversion, so producing ethanol from wood is energy inefficient. Grasses are high in cellulose and contain only about 3 percent to 5 percent lignin.”

Depending on the process, the efficiency of conversion of biomass to ethanol is affected by the amount of lignin in the feedstock (and can result in large amounts of waste byproducts). “Simple conversion processes are greatly affected by high lignin concentrations, so for ethanol we want feedstocks with very low lignin, such as grasses. Lignin is very high energy; so if we want non-ethanol fuel, wood is better.”

Cotton fiber is almost pure cellulose, he notes, and “would make a great feedstock, but the cost of the cotton would be too prohibitive.”

Studies in Iowa show energy from 1,500 acres of switchgrass could generate 1 megawatt of electricity; 1.4 million acres could produce electricity for 800,000 homes — the equivalent of 3 million tons of coal. The numbers for giant miscanthus would be even better.

“Make no mistake — no one process is a panacea for our energy needs,” Baldwin says. “All these processes and every scrap of feedstock are necessary if we as a nation are to wean ourselves off the massive amounts of petroleum we consume daily.

“Ethanol may not be the ideal feedstock, but we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels indefinitely.

“Because we have so much pine timber in the South, wood is the material that will get us into biofuels production, but pine doesn’t regenerate fast enough and can’t be sustainable long-term. It’s inherently the wrong feedstock, but it’s what we have the most of right now and it can serve as the bridge to take us into cellulosic ethanol production from grasses and other rapidly regenerating biomass crops. This kind of change comes slowly, but it holds a lot of promise.”

Two promising switchgrass varieties are also being evaluated at MSU, Baldwin notes.

“One of the problems with switchgrasses has been slow germination from seed. Expresso, a variety developed at MSU and licensed to Ernst Conservation Seed, has 95 percent germination in four days and is adapted specifically to the South. Its parent material came from the Plant Materials Center at Coffeeville, Miss.”

Another problem with switchgrass is getting it up and growing before weed competition gets too great, Baldwin says. Tusca (which means “Warrior” in Choctaw), developed by MSU Research Associate Brett Rushing, offers tolerance to Plateau herbicide for weed control.

Also, switchgrass stands often need to be renewed after three to five years, while giant miscanthus needs renewal only after eight years or more. In European production areas, there are instances of stands still producing at high levels after 25 years.

Freedom has no known disease or insect problems at this time, Baldwin says, although some nematode problems have been seen in sandy soils.

“But we need to be prepared for the inevitability of diseases and pests. Nancy Reichart, a graduate student, is working with somatic mutations for evaluation against current varieties. We want to try and stay one step ahead with varieties in screening for disease resistance and other potential problems.”

Commercialization of an alternative crop “is like pushing on a rope,” Baldwin says. “You can have the best research in the world, but unless you have demand and business support to pull it into the market, it may fizzle.”

That’s what happened 15 or more years ago when he worked with kenaf.

“It was thought there could be a lot of potential for kenaf in making paper. With high pulpwood prices, there was a lot of interest in kenaf as an alternative fiber. A lot of people jumped into it and overplanted. Demand for kenaf pulp didn’t materialize, and it just went away.

“For any alternative crop you need to get an industry in place to purchase and use that crop, so the industry and farmers can grow together. Jennings and others believe there is potential for that to happen with Freedom miscanthus.”

There was a spurt of interest, too, in canola and rape, Baldwin says. “But the mustards are highly susceptible to arsenic, and in cotton areas there was still a good bit of arsenic in the soil from earlier-era treatments. “Establishment was spotty and there were combining problems — plus, varieties that were available at that time weren’t cold hardy enough for our area. There was a big push for the mustards in Georgia, but a crushing facility didn’t materialize, and it went to zero.”

Baldwin emphasizes that even with commercial success “this is not going to be a crop that will compete with cotton, corn, soybeans, or rice. That kind of land is just too expensive to grow grasses. But these grasses can find a place on poorer soils or idled land not in crops.”

Ethanol as a fuel is not a new concept, he points out.

“In 1912, auto magnate Henry Ford observed: ‘There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years.’”

As a nation, Baldwin says, “We’ve been spoiled by oil. Now, we have to find ways to substitute biofuels for petroleum. No one process is going to be the solution; it will take every feedstock we can lay our hands on if we’re going to offset large portions of our petroleum consumption.”


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