Grasses

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Bioenergy > Biofuels > Feedstocks > Grasses


Grasses can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, through conversion of the biomass fibers to bioethanol.

Some quick-growing grasses, such as Miscanthus and elephant grass, may be farmed as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production.

It has been suggested that grasses growing on farmland margins, such as switchgrass or grass mixtures in the Midwest region of the United States, also be harvested. This may allow for land to be devoted to growing native grasses, which also provide habitat for native wildlife species.

However, the harvesting of grasses (especially native prairie grasses) may eliminate or disturb habitat for wildlife, or may interfere with biological or ecological processes, such as nesting times for birds. Also, devoting farmland margins to biofuel feedstock production may undermine goals for land to be set aside for conservation of habitat, in areas such as those recognized under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

See also:

News

  • Congress ‘lost faith’ in advanced bioenergy, key lawmaker says, 6 December 2011 by Des Moines Register: "Programs the Obama administration has been pushing to promote next-generation biofuels are likely to have little funding in the next farm bill, according to the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson."
    • "He said that the failure of Congress to pass legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions killed off support for agricultural energy programs."
    • "The failure of projects like the Range Fuels biofuels project in Georgia didn’t help either."
    • "Peterson also faulted environmentalists for opposing corn ethanol while promoting advanced biofuels made from non-food feedstocks such as cornfield residue, perennial grasses, or the wood chips from which Range Fuels was going to make fuel."
    • "A farm bill that the congressional agriculture committees drafted this fall would bar the Agriculture Department from providing subsidies for ethanol industry infrastructure. The bill would allow continued subsidies for farmers who provide corn cobs and other feedstocks to biofuel plants but there is no funding earmarked for the payments."[1]
  • U.S. gives $136 million for advanced biofuels research, 28 September 2011 by Reuters: "U.S. university researchers will get $136 million to develop advanced biofuels, including to develop jet fuel, by using tall grasses, woody plants and energy cane, the U.S. government said on Wednesday."
    • "Nearly two-thirds of the money will go toward aviation biofuels projects in the Pacific Northwest, including efforts to develop a regional source of bio-jet fuel for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport."
    • "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who announced the awards in Seattle, said the project will help promote growth in rural America."
    • "The projects would focus on using woody crops to produce bio-gasoline and renewable aviation fuel, convert idle sawmills into bioenergy development centers and develop new feedstocks and techniques for sustainable forest production to create a regional source of renewable aviation fuel, and use switchgrass and woody biomass to produce low-cost sugars for conversion to butanol as well as use forest and mill residues and dedicated energy crops to produce biodiesel fuel, heat and power."[2]
  • Testing the Water for Bioenergy Crops, 31 August 2011 by the U.S. News : "Energy researchers and environmental advocates are excited about the prospect of gaining more efficient large-scale biofuel production by using large grasses like miscanthus or switchgrass rather than corn."
    • "They have investigated yields, land use, economics and more, but one key factor of agriculture has been overlooked: water."
    • "Miscanthus and switchgrass have a very different above-ground foliage structure from corn—more surface area and much denser growth."
    • "This is good for maximizing the amount of biomass that an acre of land can produce, said Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer and atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but it also increases water use."
    • "The result of large-scale adoption would be a reduction in soil moisture and runoff, but an increase in atmospheric humidity."
    • "In the U.S. Midwest, rainfall should remain sufficient to meet water demand, according to Kumar. However, areas that rely on irrigation could find they have less water to meet higher demands, which could increase the net cost of large-scale land conversion and put pressure on already stressed water resources."[3]
  • Switch from Corn to Grass Would Raise Ethanol Output, Cut Emissions, 12 July 2011 by ScienceDaily: "Growing perennial grasses on the least productive farmland now used for corn ethanol production in the U.S. would result in higher overall corn yields, more ethanol output per acre and better groundwater quality, researchers report in a new study."
    • "The study used a computer model of plant growth and soil chemistry to compare the ecological effects of growing corn (Zea mays L.); miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), a sterile hybrid grass used in bioenergy production in Western Europe; and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), which is native to the U.S."
    • "The analysis found that switching 30 percent of the least productive corn acres to miscanthus offered the most ecological advantages."
    • "'If cellulosic feedstocks (such as miscanthus) were planted on cropland that is currently used for ethanol production in the U.S., we could achieve more ethanol (plus 82 percent) and grain for food (plus 4 percent), while reducing nitrogen leaching (minus 15 to 22 percent) and greenhouse gas emissions (minus 29 percent to 473 percent),' the researchers wrote in their report, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment."
    • "Several hurdles remain before the transition from corn to cellulosic ethanol production can occur on a commercial scale, the researchers said. Converting the sugars in corn to ethanol is easier than releasing the energy locked in plant stems and leaves."[4]
  • Bioenergy crops could lower surface temperatures, 11 March 2011 by R&D Magazine: "Converting large swaths of farmland to perennial grasses for biofuels could lower regional surface temperatures, according to a recent Stanford [University] study."
    • "The study, published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), comes on the heels of federal initiatives to wean the United States off fossil fuels by mandating significant increases in ethanol production. The Department of Agriculture forecasts that by 2018, more than one-third of the country's corn harvest will be used to produce ethanol."
    • "But concerns about the impact of corn ethanol on food prices, deforestation, and global warming have raised interest in the cultivation of perennial grasses—such as switchgrass—as alternative sources of biofuel."
    • "'We've shown that planting perennial bioenergy crops can lower surface temperatures by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit locally, averaged over the entire growing season,' said study co-author David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and a center fellow at Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment."
    • "In the study, Lobell and his colleagues used a computer simulation to forecast the climatic effects of converting farmland in the Midwest from annual crops—like corn and soybeans—to perennial grasses. The results showed that large-scale perennial cultivation in the 12-state area would pump significantly more water from the soil to the atmosphere, producing enough water vapor to cool the local surface temperature by 1.8 F."[5]
  • A billion tons of biomass a viable goal, but at high price, new research shows, 16 February 2011 by Physorg.com: "A team of researchers led by Madhu Khanna, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at Illinois, shows that between 600 and 900 million metric tons of biomass could be produced in 2030 at a price of $140 per metric ton (in 2007 dollars) while still meeting demand for food with current assumptions about yields, production costs and land availability."
    • "According to the study, not only would this require producing about a billion tons of biomass every year in the U.S., it would also mean using a part of the available land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program for energy crop production, which could significantly increase biomass production and keep biomass costs low."
    • "The study also contends that the economic viability of cellulosic biofuels depends on significant policy support in the form of the biofuel mandate and incentives for agricultural producers for harvesting, storing and delivering biomass as well as switching land from conventional crops to perennial grasses."[6]
  • Cows' guts yield clues for new biofuels, 28 January 2011 by One India News: "A new study has found dozens of previously unknown microbial enzymes in the bovine rumen -- the cow's primary grass-digestion chamber -- that contribute to the breakdown of switchgrass, a renewable biofuel energy source."
    • "After incubating the switchgrass in the rumen for 72 hours, researchers conducted a genomic analysis of all of the microbes that adhered to switchgrass. They cloned some of these genes into bacteria, and successfully produced 90 proteins of interest. They found that 57 percent of these proteins demonstrated enzymatic activity against cellulosic plant material."[7]
  • Biofuel grasslands better for birds than ethanol staple corn, 6 January 2011 press release by Michigan State University: "Developing biofuel from native perennials instead of corn in the Midwest’s rolling grasslands would better protect threatened bird populations, Michigan State University research suggests."
    • "Federal mandates and market forces both are expected to promote rising biofuel production, MSU biologist Bruce Robertson says, but the environmental consequences of turning more acreage over to row crops for fuel are a serious concern."
    • "'Native perennial grasses might provide an opportunity to produce biomass in ways that are compatible with the conservation of biodiversity and important ecosystem services such as pest control,' Robertson said...."
    • "In the first such empirical comparison and the first to simultaneously study grassland bird communities across habitat scales, Robertson and colleagues found that bugs and the birds that feed on them thrive more in mixed prairie grasses than in corn. Almost twice as many species made their homes in grasses, while plots of switchgrass, a federally designated model fuel crop, fell between the two in their ability to sustain biodiversity."
    • "The larger the plot of any type, researchers found, the greater the concentration of birds supported. But if grasslands offer conservation and biofuel opportunities, Robertson said, the biodiversity benefits could decrease as biofuel grass feedstocks are bred and cultivated for commercial uniformity."[8]
    • Read the paper, Perennial biomass feedstocks enhance avian diversity (PDF file)
  • While Tax Package Richly Rewards Corn Ethanol, Senate Appropriators Propose Pulling Rug Out from Under Next Generation Bioenergy, 15 December 2010 by the National Wildlife Federation: "While the Senate approved a tax package today that includes a $5-billion subsidy for corn ethanol, five lines buried within the almost 2000-page Senate Omnibus appropriations bill unveiled yesterday sound a death knell for next generation bioenergy crops at a critical time for the industry. The omnibus bill proposes to zero out funding for a key program to support development of the next generation of biofuels and bioenergy based on grasses and trees."
    • "The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), enacted as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, has been eagerly awaited by the next generation bioenergy industry as a critical link in making biomass based energy a reality by helping with the “chicken and the egg” problem of ensuring an adequate supply of tree and grass crops to fuel biomass energy facilities. The program would provide annual payments for five years to offset the risk to the landowner of trying these new crops, as well as assistance with the cost of establishing the new crops."
    • "While Senate appropriators claim that it was their intent to deeply cut, rather than to eliminate the BCAP, the language included in the bill would eliminate all funding for the program in Fiscal Year 2011."
  • Grasses Have Potential as Alternate Ethanol Crop, Illinois Study Finds, 1 November 2010 by Science Daily: "Researchers at the University of Illinois have completed the first extensive geographic yield and economic analysis of potential bioenergy grass crops in the Midwestern United States."
    • "[F]ederal regulations mandate that 79 billion liters of biofuels must be produced annually from non-corn biomass by 2022. Large grasses, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, could provide biomass with the added benefits of better nitrogen fixation and carbon capture, higher ethanol volumes per acre and lower water requirements than corn."
    • "Switchgrass is large prairie grass native to the Midwest, and Miscanthus, a sterile hybrid, is already widely cultivated in Europe as a biofuel crop."
    • "The team published its results in the October issue of the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy."
    • "The researchers found that, in general, the yield is very high for miscanthus -- up to three times higher than switchgrass in the Midwest. Even through switchgrass is native to the region, it doesn't grow well in higher latitudes like Minnesota or Wisconsin because it has poor tolerance for cold temperatures."
    • "Most notably, for the southernmost counties -- much of southern Illinois and nearly all of Missouri -- the model predicts greater production of grasses than of current corn and soy crops. This could be a key factor in farmers' decisions to cultivate biofuel crops."
    • "Unlike annual crops that provide a farmer with a crop every year, miscanthus and switchgrass require a lag of at least two years before harvesting."[9]
Quoted from Bioenergy choices could dramatically change Midwest bird diversity: "In a 2010 article published in PNAS, Claudio Gratton and Tim Meehan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calculated the impact on bird biodiversity of planting millions of acres of marginal land with biofuel feedstock. Left: Brown shows areas with species declines of up to 50 percent on marginal land planted with corn for biofuels. Right: Blue shows species increases of up to 200 percent if marginal lands are planted with diverse grasslands as biofuel feedstocks. Graphic: courtesy Claudio Gratton and Tim Meehan"
  • Bioenergy choices could dramatically change Midwest bird diversity, 8 October 2010 by David Tenenbaum: "Ambitious plans to expand acreage of bioenergy crops could have a major impact on birds in the Upper Midwest, according to a study published today (Oct. 4) in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)"
    • "The study compared two approaches to bioenergy feedstocks: monocultures of annuals, such as corn, or perennial cultures of prairie plants and grasses."
    • "The computer model that Meehan and Gratton developed showed that planting almost 21 million acres of perennial crops for bioenergy could increase bird biodiversity by 25 percent to 100 percent in some locales. The increase would be especially high in places like central Illinois and Iowa, where row crops are now dominant."
    • "Land-use decisions are typically made based on a single factor such as crop productivity or profitability, Gratton says, but in fact, changing how land is used usually has multiple impacts. As a result, he says, 'People are starting to think about bundles of effects, on water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, or on beneficial insects that need certain habitats to survive.'"[10]
  • Fungus Genes Help Turn Grass into Ethanol, 10 September 2010 by Technology Review: "Genes copied from a common fungus could simplify the production of ethanol from abundant materials such as grass and wood chips, a development that could one day help ethanol compete with gasoline."
    • "Scientists have taken genes from a fungus that grows on grass and dead plants, and transplanted them into yeast that is already used to turn sugar into ethanol. The genes let the yeast ferment parts of plants that it normally can't digest, potentially streamlining the production of ethanol."
    • "Most ethanol is produced using simple sugars, like the glucose derived from corn kernels or sugar cane. Ethanol producers would like to use glucose from more abundant sources, such as corn husks and stalks, switchgrass, wood waste, and other tough plant materials. But those plant parts are made of cellulose, a carbohydrate built from long chains of sugars. For yeast to produce ethanol from these materials, the complex carbohydrate has to first be broken down into very simple sugars, a process that takes time and normally requires the addition of expensive enzymes."
    • "With the new technique, ethanol makers would no longer have to break cellulose down into simple sugars. Instead, they would only need to break down cellulose into an intermediate material called cellodextrin."[11]
  • Range Fuels Finally Gets its Cellulosic Plant Running, 18 August 2010 by Renewable Energy World: "After a two year delay, Range Fuels is producing methanol fuel from its commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Georgia."
    • "The delay is not out of the ordinary for cellulosic ethanol producers. Because of the technical and financial problems companies have been facing, the Environmental Protection Agency scaled back its 2010 mandate for cellulosic fuels from 100 million gallons to 6.5 million gallons."
    • "Range Fuels has gotten over $100 million from high profile investors over the last few years. The company is producing fuels from woody biomass and grasses by turning the feedstock into a syngas. With its proprietary catalyst, Range produces a variety of alcohols that can be processed into fuels like ethanol and methanol."[12]
  • New Federal Policies Needed to Jump-Start Clean Advanced Biofuels Industry, 14 June 2010 by The Union of Concerned Scientists: "The federal government needs to adopt a suite of new policies to spur production in the stalled advanced biofuels industry, according to a report, The Billion Gallon Challenge, released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
    • "Advanced cellulosic biofuels – made from grasses, woodchips, wastes and other non-food sources – release dramatically less pollution than gasoline or corn ethanol. Reforming production tax credits for biofuels and providing new loan guarantees, investment tax credits and other financial incentives would spark investment in cellulosic biofuels, cut oil consumption, reduce global warming pollution, and ultimately save taxpayers money, the report found."
    • "Currently, cellulosic biofuels are falling far short of the mandated levels. In 2010, the standard requires fuel suppliers, largely oil companies, to purchase 100 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to lower this target to just 6.5 million gallons due to a lack of supply."[14]
  • Obama touts ethanol as vital piece of rural economic recovery, 28 April 2010 by Ben Geman, The Hill:"Obama endorsed expanded ethanol production during a speech at a Macon, Missouri plant owned by POET, the country’s largest ethanol producer."
    • "Obama noted funding for ethanol projects and research in last year’s stimulus law, and also cited his interagency biofuels working group. The administration wants to see ethanol production tripled over the next 12 years, he said. "
    • "POET and other companies are also seeking to develop next-generation fuels made from materials such as crop wastes, algae and grasses."[15]



Grasses edit
Elephant grass | Miscanthus | Switchgrass

Grasslands | Native grasses (Prairie grasses)
See also: Conservation Reserve Program | Cellulosic ethanol

Bioenergy feedstocks edit

Biodiesel feedstocks:
Currently in use: Animal fat | Castor beans | Coconut oil | Jatropha | Jojoba | Karanj | Palm oil | Rapeseed | Soybeans | Sunflower seed | Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO)
Currently in research and development: Algae | Halophytes (Salt-tolerant plants)


Ethanol feedstocks:
First-generation: Cassava | Corn | Milo | Nypa palm | Sorghum | Sugar beets | Sugar cane | Sugar palm |Sweet potato | Waste citrus peels | Wheat | Whey
Second-generation: For cellulosic technology - Grasses: Miscanthus, Prairie grasses, Switchgrass | Trees: Hybrid poplar, Mesquite, Willow


Charcoal feedstocks: Bamboo | Wood
Waste-to-energy (MSW)

Agriculture edit
Issues: Ecosystem displacement | Food versus fuel debate | Intensification of agriculture | Land use change
Soil: Soil amendments (Agrichar/Biochar, Terra preta) - Soil carbon sequestration
US - Department of Agriculture | Farm Bill
Crops/Plants (Feedstocks) | Drylands | Livestock


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