Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Elephant Grass and Prairie Switchgrass: Second Generation Biofuels to Power American Cars

Climate
Elephant Grass and Prairie Switchgrass: Second Generation Biofuels to Power American Cars

In tomorrow’s world, it won’t be just the corn on the great American plains that is as high as an elephant’s eye. It will be the elephant grass as well.

To deliver on U.S. promises to reduce fossil fuel use, American motorists in future will drive on miscanthus—as elephant grass is also known—and prairie switchgrass.

Elephant grass has a high biomass yield and grows rapidly to over three metres tall.

Photo credit: Tony Atkin / Wikimedia Commons

Researchers led by Evan DeLucia, professor of biology at the University of Illinois, report in a new journal, Nature Energy, that to exploit biofuels—which recycle carbon already in the atmosphere, and are therefore technically “carbon-neutral”—Americans will have to think again about how they manage the change away from fossil fuels.

Right now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standards foresee that by 2022 American motorists will start up their cars with 15 billion gallons (57 billion liters) of ethanol from corn. But this could be augmented by 16 billion gallons (60 billion litres) of biofuel derived from perennial grasses.

Energy Source

The switch to the prairie’s native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Eurasian elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus) will be necessary because there are problems with corn as a source of energy.

One is that, in an increasingly hungry world, it reduces the overall levels of food available. The second is that corn requires annual planting, fertilising and harvesting. Perennial grasses simply grow, and can be mown once a year.

So by turning over surplus land to swift-growing grasses, and at the same time reducing the levels of carbon dioxide released from cultivation, the U.S. could meet its target of a 7 percent reduction in its annual transportation emissions by 2022. If farmers went on gradually to switch from corn to the grasses, the reduction could get as high as 12 percent.

Professor DeLucia said: “Greenhouse gas savings from bioenergy have come under varying levels of attack, and this paper goes a long way to showing that, contrary to what some are saying, these savings can be potentially large if cellulosic biofuels from dedicated energy crops meet a large share of the mandate.

“This is a viable path forward to energy security, reducing greenhouse gases and providing a diversified crop portfolio for farmers in the U.S.”

The researchers used a climate model to test what would happen if land now being used to grow corn (Zea mays) for ethanol—currently, 40 percent of the corn harvest is used for biofuel—was switched to the two candidate grasses.

Store More Carbon

“Our results were staggering,” Professor DeLucia said. “Since both of those plants are perennial, you don’t till every year. The grasses also require less fertilizer, which is a source of nitrous oxide, and they store more carbon in the ground than corn.”

The switch could turn the U.S. Midwest from a net source of greenhouse gas emissions to a “sink” absorbing them. The study assumed that, rather than the most productive soil, the low-yielding land would be converted to grasses for biofuel.

It also factored in some of the other consequences: if the extra billions of gallons of fuel led to a fall in fuel prices, would Americans drive more, and eliminate the carbon savings? Even if that did happen, such a change has the potential to reduce U.S. emissions overall.

But growers have to be sure that energy policies will be consistent, according to the paper’s co-author, Madhu Khanna, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

“The moral of this whole story is that we need to find a way to expand the production of second generation biofuel crops and maybe even displace corn ethanol,” she said.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Why Mars as a Backup Planet Isn’t a Good Idea

Scientists Link Extreme Weather to Climate Change

3 Reasons Big Coal Had a Bad Week

Obama Builds on His Climate Legacy by Making Historic Change to Coal Leasing on Public Lands

Yves Adams / Instagram

A rare yellow penguin has been photographed for what is believed to be the first time.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Crystal building in London, England is the first building in the world to be awarded an outstanding BREEAM (BRE Environmental Assessment Method) rating and a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum rating. Alphotographic / Getty Images

By Stuart Braun

We spend 90% of our time in the buildings where we live and work, shop and conduct business, in the structures that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.

But immense energy is required to source and manufacture building materials, to power construction sites, to maintain and renew the built environment. In 2019, building operations and construction activities together accounted for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, the highest level ever recorded.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Houses and wooden debris are shown in flood waters from Hurricane Katrina Sept. 11, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Jerry Grayson / Helifilms Australia PTY Ltd / Getty Images

By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich

Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.

Read More Show Less
A gray wolf is seen howling outside in winter. Wolfgang Kaehler / Contributor / Getty Images

Wisconsin will end its controversial wolf hunt early after hunters and trappers killed almost 70 percent of the state's quota in the hunt's first 48 hours.

Read More Show Less
Tom Vilsack speaks on December 11, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware after being nominated to be Agriculture Secretary by U.S. President Joe Biden. Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.

Read More Show Less