IMAGE: MISCANTHUS FIELD
Rothamsted Research Ltd  /  Reuters file
This miscanthus field was planted near Taunton, England, by researchers studying the use of biomass to make energy. University of Illiniois researchers are doing similar work and farmers like what they see.
updated 6/1/2006 8:18:09 AM ET 2006-06-01T12:18:09

Standing on a hill not far from his farmhouse, John Caveny looks down at the grass growing around his feet and says he's looking at the future of Illinois agriculture.

"The purpose of this farm is to turn grass into cash," he says.

Caveny stands in a plot of miscanthus, a perennial grass that by summer's end will grow about 12 feet tall and has the potential to become not only a cash crop for farmers, but also a source of electrical power and motor fuel.

As the nation's No. 2 corn ethanol producer and leading consumer of soy biodiesel, Illinois already is a major player in biofuels. Yet farmers and farm researchers also are studying ways to use miscanthus and other crops, livestock and the byproducts farms produce to help the nation wean itself from foreign oil and reduce fossil fuel emissions.

At the University of Illinois' ag school alone, 42 faculty are looking into how energy creation might alter the state's rural scene in years to come.

"Reality in most of the world today is we produce enough food, so we have the luxury of thinking about what else can we use this landscape for," says Robert Easter, dean of UI's College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Urbana. "I think a significant component of that future is going to be energy."

UI researchers have worked for years to successfully convert pig manure into crude oil. Others are working with microbes that can turn corn into butanol, which can be used for fuel, and still more are looking for new ways to recycle the waste from biofuel production into livestock feed.

Thinking beyond corn
But miscanthus might hold the greatest near-term potential for farmers and fuel consumers, crop scientist Stephen Long says. He has spent the past several years working with the grass to determine its viability as a fuel to generate electricity and as a source of "cellulosic ethanol" — ethanol made from plant products other than corn.

Miscanthus, switchgrass, corn stover and other plant waste can be made into ethanol through a process that uses an enzyme to ferment the cellulose, the primary structural component of green plants, into sugar, which is then distilled into ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Then, just like corn ethanol, it can be blended with gasoline for use as motor vehicle fuel.

Switchgrass, a prairie grass that can reach heights of seven feet, is being used as a test fuel at a power plant in southern Iowa and has potential as a source for cellulosic ethanol, researchers say. But miscanthus could be an even better source, and a better crop for farmers.

Harvest at test plots across the state indicate that miscanthus could yield 15-20 tons per acre, at least double the yield of switchgrass.

"I think we have a lucky break with miscanthus," Long says, noting that Illinois is the only state growing it in production trials. "It could really make a big difference to cellulosic ethanol because if you're getting double the yield, it means you're actually getting more than double the profit."

Tests indicate a ton of miscanthus could produce up to 80 gallons of cellulosic ethanol, Long says.

"I know for myself, as a producer, that would definitely be of interest to me and I would think it would be of interest to others, too," says Edwardsville farmer Gary Knecht, one of a group of producers in southwestern Illinois who have joined forces to explore uses and markets for alternative crops.

Business ventures
The group, OmniVentures Inc., plans to study the viability of miscanthus this year, he says. With high oil prices and a push from President Bush earlier this year to produce renewable fuels, Knecht believes development of the industry will come quickly.

"If it's only three or four years down the road, you can't be waiting two years from now to start researching this. You need to start researching now," he says.

Caveny, whose daughter studied under Long, has been working with miscanthus for about five years. He believes it can help Illinois stay at the front of the biofuels industry.

"Just as we talk about grain yields and bushels per acre, we're beginning to talk about energy yields in barrels of oil equivalent per acre," says Caveny, who has turned his enthusiasm for miscanthus into a business — Environmentally Correct Concepts Inc.

Caveny says he hopes to turn his grass into cash by supplying root stock for miscanthus to other growers. Miscanthus is a rhizome, so it is propagated by splitting and replanting the roots of existing plants.

Farmers looking for a quick profit from miscanthus might be disappointed. It takes three to four years for a new field to reach maturity, but after that it will produce nearly the same amount of crop every year for a quarter-century or longer, Caveny says.

There are other downsides, agricultural economist Madhu Khanna says.

First, the market for miscanthus as either a power source or motor fuel has not developed. Without a market, will farmers invest land in trying the crop?

"There is some of that chicken-and-egg phenomenon here," she says.

Because of its weight it costs a lot to move harvested miscanthus, so it likely would not be economical to grow it more than 25 miles from the power plant or ethanol processor. Farmers would have to get $25 to $35 per ton for miscanthus to turn a reasonable profit, says Khanna, who also works at the University of Illinois.

"In order to get those prices, we'd have to start valuing some of the other reasons we would want to grow miscanthus and use it as a substitute for coal," she says.

Environmental benefits
Those reasons include the environmental benefits of miscanthus.

The variety planted in Illinois is sterile, so it won't become an invasive weed. It does not pollute the air when it's burned, and its root structure makes it an ideal plant for controlling soil erosion and nitrogen runoff.

And, because it stores its nutrients in its roots when it is dormant, miscanthus needs very little fertilizer, Long says.

"The technologies are there so this can be done. So it's really now a question of investors investing in this, and possibly the government promoting it," he says.

Caveny figures if all goes well, there could be enough acres planted to miscanthus in Illinois to be commercially productive by 2010. While it likely won't supplant corn and soybeans as cash crops, he says the potential for miscanthus' success is huge.

"We believe it's the third crop for Illinois," Caveny says.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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