Giant Miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), a hybrid grass that can grow 13 feet high, may be a valuable, nonpolluting renewable fuel source for the United States in the future, according to Stephen Long, a professor of crop sciences and plant biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Long reported on the advantages of the grass as a fuel at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin, Ireland, in September. When dry, leafless Miscanthus stems are burned, they produce only as much carbon dioxide as the plants removed from the air while they were growing. That balance means there is no net effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Miscanthus also is a very efficient fuel, because the energy ratio of input to output is less than 0.2. In contrast, the ratios exceed 0.8 for ethanol from corn and biodiesel from canola. Furthermore, Miscanthus is remarkably easy to grow; it outgrows weeds, requires little water and minimal fertilizer, and thrives in untilled fields.
The plant has been used commercially in Europe for years. Existing U.S. power plants could be modified to use Miscanthus for fuel as in Europe, Long said. Using a computer model, doctoral student Emily Heaton predicted that if 10% of Illinois land mass were devoted to growing Miscanthus, the resulting fuel could provide 50% of the state's electricity needs. The change would not necessarily reduce energy costs to the consumer in the short term, Heaton said, but there would be significant savings in carbon dioxide production.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign