The grass is greener on the ethanol model side

From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Switch from corn to grass would raise ethanol output, cut emissions

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — 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 switch would also slash emissions of two potent greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

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.

“Globally, agriculture contributes about 14 percent of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming to the atmosphere,” said University of Illinois plant biology and Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) professor Evan DeLucia, who led the study with EBI feedstock analyst Sarah Davis. “The whole Midwest has been, since the advent of modern agriculture, a source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”

IMAGE:Experimental plots in Urbana, Illinois, include corn, switchgrass and miscanthus in side-by-side trials.Click here for more information.

“According to our model, just by making this replacement you convert that whole area from a source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to a sink for greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” DeLucia said.

Miscanthus grows in thick stands up to 13 feet tall in test plots in Illinois. It does well on marginal land without being fertilized, so using it as a biofuel feedstock instead of corn would eliminate a major source of air and water pollution, Davis said. Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of the fertilizers used on cornfields, “is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” she said.

“Both switchgrass and miscanthus are perennial grasses, which means that you don’t have to till every year, you don’t have to plant every year, so there’s much less soil disturbance happening than with corn,” Davis said. “And because the root system remains in place year after year, there’s more carbon going into the soil.”

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.

Currently, one commercial-scale lignocellulose biorefinery is under construction in the U.S. – in Florida, the researchers said, and other facilities are in the planning stages. More research must be done to increase the efficiency of the process, the researchers said.

“We know that these grasses are enormously productive; we know the agronomy works; we know the ecology works,” DeLucia said. “So the next step is to break down the economic barriers by making an efficient conversion chain from lignocellulosics to ethanol.”

DeLucia said most scientists in the field expect this to be achieved within a decade.

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DeLucia is an affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois. The BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute funded this study.

The paper, “Impact of Second-Generation Biofuel Agriculture on Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Corn-Growing Regions of the U.S.,” is available online or from the U. of I. News Bureau.

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Oh gosh it’s funded by BIG OIL, quick ignore it!

 

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54 thoughts on “The grass is greener on the ethanol model side

  1. Seems plausible. Corn can be grown without the industrial fertilizers and herbcides. Farms just need to be smaller, family run, and not planted right up to the drainage ditch. Smarter farming practices would be healthier for everyone. The health of the cropland should be the focus that is put in tune with the atmosphere.

  2. Oh that’s just great. Here come the lobbyists to push for new subsidies … switch from corn to grass.

  3. That’s all nice, but what are the ECONOMIC impacts? That is what farmers are going to look at. Oh, and there’s no economically viable conversion process, but we’re figuring to have one in 10 years or so. How long have they said that about solar?

  4. Sounds logical, as long as the numbers stack up then sure, but if it means having to heavily “subsidise” the industry then there is no long term benefit.
    Biofuel isn’t a stupid idea, however at the moment it just isn’t cost effective nor efficient, if research can find a way to make it effective and efficient then great, however till then can we just use the easy and rather cheap fossil stuff while it’s sitting there and let innovation lead the way as it has for the last 100 years.
    People seem to forget that 100 years ago we humans couldn’t fly, couldn’t power our houses, couldn’t communicate easily, couldn’t transport product or people efficiently. In only 100 years we have accomplished so much, why do some tend to think that there won’t be any further innovation and therefore need to “stop” the modern world.
    I for one can’t wait for the next Wright Brothers, Watt, Edison, Tesla, Bell etc.

  5. “Several hurdles remain before the transition from corn to cellulosic ethanol production can occur on a commercial scale” and “More research must be done to increase the efficiency of the process, the researchers said”
    This project looks more of a money sink than a carbon sink to me.
    Good for them big oil instead of the tax tax payer is financing this venture but I will stick with plain gasoline since there are more disadvantages to ethanol even if it is blended with gasoline to E10 = 10% ethanol
    http://www.fuel-testers.com/ethanol_fuel_disadvantages.html

  6. Except that people have been trying to convert ligneous cellulose into something useful for nearly a hundred years. During all that time it has been and remains the holy grail for making almost endless supplies of fuel sometime in the future. But it is still something for the future.
    I do not say it cannot be done, I only say that it has not been done yet with any success and there is no reason to suppose that it can be done cheaply enough to compete.
    Kindest Regards

  7. When you plug in the irrelevance of both CO2 and NO2 to climate, the nonsensicality of the whole exercise is painful to contemplate.

  8. So the next step is to break down the economic barriers by making an efficient conversion chain from lignocellulosics to ethanol.”
    DeLucia said most scientists in the field expect this to be achieved within a decade.

    Fine. 10 years to launch.
    Another 10 years to build commercial facilities, including the crop.
    Another 10 years to scale up to significant contribution.
    Another 10 years to begin taking share advantage from existing oil and gas.
    Meanwhile, could we build that pipeline from Alberta and drill a few oil wells on American lands?

  9. Folks, I have two degrees from UI and presently lecture there (Agricultural & Biological Engineering). I’ve been watching the EBI goings-on for a while.
    All the hoo-haa about cellulosic ethanol is just that. Breaking the covalent bonds that form the backbone of the cellulose molecule is notoriously difficult, even though termites have figured it out for millions of years. We can do it on very small batches, but the economics go all to hell in full-scale. Plus, the end-product is a low-energy-density fuel that is corrosive & cannot be transported via pipeline.
    This type of news is telling: http://www.detnews.com/article/20110622/AUTO01/106220324/1148/auto01/EPA-cuts-ethanol-mandate-for-2012

  10. To paraphrase Lincoln, Liars can model and models can lie. It’s gotten to the point that the word ‘model’ says to me WARNING! BS ahead!

  11. “DeLucia said most scientists in the field expect this to be achieved within a decade.”
    According to the “progressive” website Campaign for America’s Future: “New drilling wouldn’t bring the first drop of oil to market for at least 10 years”
    Let’s have a race.

  12. “The study used a computer model of plant growth and soil chemistry”
    Not with the computer models again! How about a proof of theory, like some real world experiments?
    ” switching 30 percent of the least productive corn acres”
    They just do NOT want to let people have more corn to eat, do they? I thought they might be bright enough to suggest using marginal/noncrop land, but no, they still use corm acres. Oh well, it goes along with the fact that they do not mind raising the cost of food worldwide and probably really want to anyhow. Anything for the cause.

  13. The problem has never been bio-fuel. THe problem has been mandated use of it, combined with subsidies for making it.
    If farmers can make a buck growing grass for fuel, more power to them. Just as long as it is net economically positive in the same way drilling for oil is.

  14. Ethanol from any source is still an incredibly poor choice as a vehicle fuel.
    Not least because of its pernicious effects upon engines.
    Australians found out the hard way that 20% ethanol blends dramatically shorten engine life. And then further found out, after reading the fine print, that vehicle manufacturers specifically disclaim any warranty liability when their engines have been run with previously unapproved fuel blends.

  15. Why don’t these morons try a grass like sugar cane. That would eliminate 75% of the cost of production. We really are dealing with fools and politicians. Not that they are different. Except politicians are fools and liars.

  16. No subsidies; neither visible or hidden (mandating ethanol mixed in fuels).
    That being settled, ethanol, butanol and such products from biomass might be far better as a feedstock in creating other chemicals that are currently made from fossil fuels.
    There are many advances being made like low-energy de-watering of ethanol and developing better methods of breaking the sugar from cellulose molecules and methods of using the other components of the plant. But there are lots of micro organisms that are quite happy to break down cellulose and provide us with ethanol or butanol. But this method may be overtaken by processes like pyrolysis which turn the biomass into syngas. There is a lot being done in the fields of chemistry, biology and engineering that could help make biomass harvested from marginal land or wasteland a contributor to industry. If, that is, government doesn’t decide to pick winners and punish other options through subsidies to their favorites.

  17. [quote}
    Globally, agriculture contributes about 14 percent of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming to the atmosphere
    [/quote]
    That’s as may be but, it (agriculture) feeds 100% of the people (and a whole lot of animals and birds too) Obviously people are the problem…..
    Its one of those statements that warmista like to throw around to make themselves look clever.
    Another classic nonsense statements is the “UK has 40% of Europe’s available wind-power”
    So what, fish can swim and birds can fly – it solves nothing.
    To show how disconnected they and their computers are from The Real World ask them…..
    What happens to the yield of Miscanthus or Switchgrass or Anything after 10/15/20 years of cropping without adding fertiliser of any sort?
    Hint= Any ‘dustbowl’ predictions that other warmistas make/have made will come true but for all the wrong reasons.

  18. Look at what the oil and gas industry has done to add real energy reserves and without any govt subsidies.
    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/270893/fracas-about-fracking-kathleen-hartnett-white

    In these ways, human ingenuity, catalyzed by market dynamics, has foiled predictions of irreversible decline in domestic oil and natural-gas resources. Official estimates of the amount of recoverable oil and natural gas have soared. Last year, global natural-gas supplies rose 40 percent. From 2010 to 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) doubled its estimate of recoverable natural gas in the U.S. The EIA increased its estimate of Texas’s natural-gas reserves by 70 percent between 2005 and 2008, and Texas also is doing prolific fracking in oil: Producers now have access to 2 billion barrels in the Wolfberry formation in the Permian Basin. The Eagle Ford fields in South Texas increased oil production fourfold in the first ten months of 2010. And the Haynesville-Bossier fields, straddling Texas’s border with Louisiana, increased reserves of natural gas by 9.4 trillion cubic feet while increasing production twelvefold.
    The EIA also believes that natural gas in the Marcellus formation of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia contains more BTUs of energy than do the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. Drilling is well under way in Pennsylvania, where 141,000 new jobs in the “gas patch” have been created in the last few years. New York has declined to accept its energy wealth and instead imposed a de facto moratorium on fracking, pending the completion of an environmental-impact statement — thus deferring the creation of hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.
    Enormous new oil production is opening up in the Bakken fields of the Williston Basin, covering the Dakotas and Montana. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Bakken contained up to 4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Current estimates range as high as 24 billion barrels.

    All of the work is being done on private land where government approvals are not needed. The same can’t be said regarding public lands because of interference from the regulators, as the article points out.
    Why not let the frackers produce more energy with no money needed from the government?
    Seems I’ve been reading and hearing about a lack of money from the govt lately.

  19. May I suggest people read about Poet’s Project Liberty. Poet, the largest producer of food ethanol in the USA, is now building a facility to produce commercial quantities of cellulose ethanol. The plant is due to go in to production in 2012. I suggest it would be a good idea to see whether this project is successful. Small quantities of cellulose ehtanol have been produced for years. However, doing it on a commercial scale has not yet been achieved. Range Fuels tried recently, and failed. I have no affiliation with Poet.

  20. Eliminating the least-productive growing plots will increase the overall rate of yield? Who knew!
    Seriously – was that really worth including in their findings?

  21. The dawn of the sugar industry was a toss up of what to breed for higher sugar content, cane , beets or couch grass {bermuda grass} to American golfers. All of these started with a very low sugar content and were bred to increase it. Cane and beet won the race. But couch can be planted and harvested rotationaly and constantly removing 75% of the grass at each harvest with beneficial effects, tons per acre. Breeding couch or kikuyu up to 15% sugar would be a snap. Corn for fuel is a disgrace. Sugar to beverage or fuel is easy.

  22. “Miscanthus grows in thick stands up to 13 feet tall in test plots in Illinois. It does well on marginal land without being fertilized, so using it as a biofuel feedstock instead of corn would eliminate a major source of air and water pollution, Davis said. Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of the fertilizers used on cornfields, “is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” she said.”
    Are these people completely ignorant of the realities of growing stuff? If you are going to remove the stuff you grow, the next crop requires that fertilizer be brought in to replace what was taken. Else, you deplete the soil to the point that nothing grows.
    Idiots!

  23. This study merely outlines the efficiency of changing some crop land from corn to switch grass- IF a cheap enzyme system were ever to become available to convert cellulose to sugar then EtOH.
    The meager gains it predicts should be kept in context: simply by bringing all American corn farms up to current state of the art in terms of irrigation/drainage, use of additives to improve N &P bioavailability and simply dialing in the seed planter properly could increase corn yield by 60%. Improved genetics are expected to improve yield another 40% within 10 yrs.

  24. There are some issues that have not been addressed. For example, driving multi-ton harvesters on that soil will compact it quite a lot. How will that effect the grass? Anyone who has walked the same path over and over on a lawn knows that it doesn’t take long for the grass to get the idea and it simply stops growing along that path.

  25. “Why don’t these morons try a grass like sugar cane. That would eliminate 75% of the cost of production. ”
    Mainly because SugarCane in the US grows well in a farly small, well defined area. There are other cane sources being developed, but, none of them are commercially viable yet.
    As to the fertility depletion. In some cases, they are leaving the miscanthus lay, and either get rained or snowed on before harvest to assisst in leaching of nutrients, or harvesting it very late in the season when some of the minerals have been redeposited in the roots.. This is problematic, for a number of reasons. Also, I don’t think these dolks have ever tried to cut and bale something 13 foot tall and woody. Not for the faint of heart.

  26. “The whole Midwest has been, since the advent of modern agriculture, a source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”
    Of course, the natural carbon cycle didn’t exist before the advent of modern agriculture …
    Ignoring such nonsense, note the reference “marginal for corn”. Corn is cow/pig/poultry food which is probably better produced on productive, not marginal, land for economic reasons.
    Brian H says:
    July 12, 2011 at 9:12 pm
    “When you plug in the irrelevance of both CO2 and NO2 to climate, the nonsensicality of the whole exercise is painful to contemplate.”
    Yes, in that sense it is nonsensical, but it does make sense to conserve or increase carbon in soil. Perennial biomass crops have the potential to reduce soil erosion. Carbon is the proxy term for soil organic matter – lose too much of it and you may be in for trouble from low fertility, reduced waterholding capacity and soil erosion. This had nothing to do with climate until the Carbonistas took over the Agenda for Everything.
    Given the lack of technology for large-scale ligno-cellulose processing, an alternative is dry anaerobic digestion of biomass to produce methane, which can utilised locally for power generation. There is movement on this in UK and Europe, but it is subsidised at present.

  27. I have met several founders of Poet and a couople of former execs. Several actually came from Koch industries. Poet is about the only prosperous enterprise in the industry. I have looked to see if they could live and survive without massive subsidies.
    Cellulosic just lost a 200 million dollar stunt in Georgia. It never came to name plate output and was closed.
    “Range Fuels to build first wood cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgia. Potential to produce over 1 Billion Gallons a Year”
    “The company has received over 300 million dollars in funding since breaking ground for the plant in 2007, but have not been able to get enough money to expand the facility for commercial production. There are also reportedly some “technical problems” with the plant”.
    If they only had a couple hundred million more…..
    Don’t encourage these wastefull ventures. They are huge money spenders.

  28. “There are some issues that have not been addressed. For example, driving multi-ton harvesters on that soil will compact it quite a lot. How will that effect the grass? Anyone who has walked the same path over and over on a lawn knows that it doesn’t take long for the grass to get the idea and it simply stops growing along that path.”
    Typically, you are talking once a year harvest, and natural processes help loosen the soil some, although there will definately be some compaction, and harvest conditions can impact that. However, we have fields that have been in hay and pasture for 40 years and they still produce.

  29. Speaking as a graduate of that institution, it’s a study and studies are of less substance than actual science and filled with limitations that are ignored and projections that are what ifs and conditioned by “may” or “possibly likely.” Less substance even than Monty Python’s Anne Elke’s theory that dinosaurs are thin on one end, thicker in the middle, and then rather thin again on the other end . This study has the smell and substance of wishful thinking complete with some generally politically correct goals and consisting of a model.
    Go Illini, I guess.

  30. This whole thread is unnecessary in that biofuels are only needed if we believe that in 10 years all the oil is going to be gone, and we all know that’s not going to happen.
    New technology happens, self-supporting new technology that is, when it solves a real problem, meets real needs. For the vast majority of energy consumption, biofuels, solar, wind, geothermal, wave action – don’t meet that basic criterium. The proof is in the subsidies needed.
    Free markets are incredibly efficient in producing said solutions, and weeding out the failures. The only nearly free market the world has ever seen is Electronics, and look at the incredible progress there, the turmoil, the redistribution of assets, the – beyond Flash Gordon – inventions.
    Science made it possible, killing science can destroy it as well.

  31. Gary Turner says:
    July 13, 2011 at 4:08 am
    “… Are these people completely ignorant of the realities of growing stuff? If you are going to remove the stuff you grow, the next crop requires that fertilizer be brought in to replace what was taken. Else, you deplete the soil to the point that nothing grows.
    Idiots!”
    Miscanthus stands in the field becoming senescent before harvest, most of the mineral content is returned to the rootstock, the leaves drop off, and the harvested stand (which may be good for 20 years) is mostly cellulosic with a small proportion of lignin. Apart from some reactive nitrogen, which falls in rain to the tune of ~50kg/ha/year, the biomass is composed of C,H and O. None of which invokes the use of great amounts of fertiliser …
    Are these people completely ignorant of the realities of growing stuff? No, not these people. Others are, though.

  32. Why do they keep bothering with these hard to get to technologies? The possibilities for tax funded subsidies of course.
    If they used half the sugar and wheat that goes into the tasty world of pastries, tarts, and candy, they could keep corn for food and still have enough pastries, tarts, and candy over (since, apparently, most of that goes to waste anyways.) Not just green, but healthy too. :p

  33. “Nitrous oxide, a byproduct of the fertilizers used on cornfields, “is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide,” she said….”
    Whoa!
    Looks like that Nitrous Oxide is no laughing matter!
    🙂

  34. Henry chance writes “Don’t encourage these wastefull ventures. They are huge money spenders.”
    You may be right; then on the other hand, you may not. One of the aims of the USA is to be less dependent on foreign oil, including Candian oil. (I am a Canadian). Is it worthwhile gambling 300 million dollars on a project that might make the USA less dependent on foreign oil. My answer would be `Yes`. As I say, let us see what happens to Project Liberty in 2012. It is not that far away..

  35. I’m not sure I’m following. Does the study say some land being used to grow corn for ethanol should be instead used to grow switchgrass (and similar plants) for ethanol instead? That’s a great idea, except nobody seems to know how to economically make cellulosic ethanol economically.
    ON the other hand, I’m not sure anybody knows how to make corn ethanol economically, either. That why we have all the subsidies, mandates and import tariffs.

  36. What they didn’t say was the miscanthus uses 30% more water than the corn and switchgrass and that it depletes ground water tables in the midwest.

  37. Just to be technically correct – Corn is grass. So what is being discussed is a switch from grass (corn) to another type of grass (switchgrass). GK

  38. “The switch would also slash emissions of two potent greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.”
    With that one statement you can disregard this entire paper as pure hogwash. Reading further just gets you more lies and exaggerations.

  39. They say Miscanthus would be non-invasive because it propagates by rhizomes.
    Hm.
    I could name a few quite seriously invasive plants which propagate by rhizomes … and the fun begins when one wants to get rid of said rhizomes.

  40. “If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” Mind-blowingly irrelevant, just another pretext for sucking up some global-warming-related publicity.

  41. anything that has a range of 29 percent to 473 percent tells me one thing … They DO NOT HAVE A CLUE … this is not science it is voodoo …

  42. Why can’t we admit that ethanol additives for gasoline is a bad idea, inefficient, dirty, not cost efficient, and bad for combustible engines. Those involved in the energy business have plenty of incentive without government grants or subsidies to continue research for replacements for fossil fuels.

  43. pat says:
    Why don’t these morons try a grass like sugar cane.
    ++++++++
    Sugar cane critics point out that there are huge energy inputs to sugar and a large amount of chemicals needed for intensive production. The returns per hectare are fantastic, but it is a thirsty crop. At Nsoko, Swaziland, the largest private sugar estate in Southern Africa belongs to Michael Forbes producing 135 tons per ha (7% sugar) on about 2500 ha. That is a huge amount of energy, but also a huge input in chemicals to protect the monocrop that it is. It is toxic enough that the snakes move as if they are drunk. The cane rats, however (genus Thryonomys) are huge and delicious! Mmmm!

  44. Another computer model, indeed. Have any of these computer models ever proved to be correct?
    Perhaps a study is needed to determine the track record of computer models.
    Since there isn’t such a study, I suspect we all know what the answer is.

  45. Cellulose to alcohol conversion has been only 10 years away since the late 1960’s. Also cheap solar, wind, and a hydrogen based economy.
    These studies would be a lot more believable if they had input from agronomists and engineers. At least they would not keep making the same dumb errors.

  46. Just a couple notes:
    Another benefit, if done properly, is that soil erosion is still an issue, even with modern low/no till and other techniques to minimize it. Switching high erosion areas and creating buffers with grass could be extremely beneficial.
    The other note is that corn, and other crops, are a huge CO2 sink even now. How many billions of metric tons of plant material are harvested every year? And what do you think is the origin of a large fraction of that mass? CO2. I lost track of the article that showed the huge, negative carbon footprint of farming.

  47. Just a guess, but I bet the most marginal land for corn is also water deficient. If switchgrass needs more water, it just might be a non-starter in places that are also marginal for corn.

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