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Grass rivals corn in ethanol potential

Scientists now say that biofuel grasses have the potential to replace corn-based ethanol in a way that is both environmentally and economically beneficial.

A new study from Colorado State University scientists and collaborators from the University of Illinois evaluates the potential impact of using biofuel grass species instead of corn as a method of producing ethanol within the U.S. Corn Belt. Scientists now say that biofuel grasses have the potential to replace corn-based ethanol in a way that is both environmentally and economically beneficial.

CSU senior research scientist William Parton and his research team found that using biofuel grass species, such as switchgrass, in the same land area as used to grow corn could result in an increase in ethanol production, a reduction in nitrogen leaching into the Gulf of Mexico, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emission caused from the Corn Belt in the Midwest region of the United States.

Perennial grass benefits

The research shows that, by replacing corn ethanol, perennial grasses could increase the productivity of food and fuel within the region without causing additional indirect land use change.

“Raising perennial biofuel crops on previously cultivated land in the United States will result in massive reductions in greenhouse gas fluxes from agricultural systems,” Parton said. “Growing perennial biofuel crops on low-production agricultural land can result in large environmental benefits such as improved air and water quality as well as increased ethanol production and sustained production of corn and soybeans.”

Parton’s research demonstrates that more efforts should be made in researching methods of producing ethanol from biofuel crops. Despite the current lack of economically viable techniques of producing ethanol from these crops, the research shows that biofuel crops will benefit the Corn Belt in multiple ways that corn cannot.

“We have found that perennial biofuel crop growth has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas fluxes and nitrogen leaching from agricultural systems while maintaining current food production for human consumption. Production of corn-based ethanol simply cannot compare to the 15 percent to 30 percent reduction in nitrogen leaching into the Gulf of Mexico when perennial crops are grown for ethanol production,” Parton said.

The policy implications of this study point toward more research that should be conducted on how to produce ethanol from biofuel crops. The potential benefits to both the environment and economy cannot be ignored, Parton says.

The study is published online in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment at

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