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Hybrid grass may prove to be valuable fuel source

Giant Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), a hybrid grass that can grow 13 feet high, may be a valuable renewable fuel source for the future, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say.

Stephen P. Long, a professor of crop sciences and of plant biology, recently took that message to Dublin, Ireland, where the British Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored the annual BA Festival of Science Sept. 3-10.

Closer to home, two of Long's doctoral students, Emily A. Heaton and Frank G. Dohleman, delivered their Miscanthus findings at the 49th annual Agronomy Day, held on campus Aug. 18 and attended by more than 1,100 visitors from across the Midwest.

"Forty percent of U.S. energy is used as electricity," Heaton said. "The easiest way to get electricity is using a solid fuel such as coal." Dry, leafless Miscanthus stems can be used as a solid fuel. The cool-weather-friendly perennial grass, sometimes referred to as elephant grass or E-grass, grows from an underground stem-like organ called a rhizome. Miscanthus, a crop native to Asia and a relative of sugarcane, drops its slender leaves in the winter, leaving behind tall bamboo-like stems that can be harvested in early spring and burned for fuel.

Rhizomatous grasses such as Miscanthus are very clean fuels, said Dohleman, who is studying for a doctorate in plant biology. Nutrients such as nitrogen are transferred to the rhizome to be saved until the next growing season, he said.

Burning Miscanthus produces only as much carbon dioxide as it removes from the air as it grows, said Heaton, who is seeking a doctorate in crop sciences. That balance means there is no net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which is not the case with fossil fuels, she said.

Miscanthus also is a very efficient fuel, because the energy ratio of input to output is less than 0.2, Heaton said. In contrast, the ratios exceed 0.8 for ethanol and biodiesel from canol
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Source:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


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