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

The miserable ones: Young broiler chickens at a feeder. The poor treatment of the chickens within its supply chain has made Tyson the target of public campaigns urging the company to make meaningful changes. U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

By David Coman-Hidy

The actions of the U.S. meat industry throughout the pandemic have brought to light the true corruption and waste that are inherent within our food system. Despite a new wave of rising COVID-19 cases, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently submitted a proposal to further increase "the maximum slaughter line speed by 25 percent," which was already far too fast and highly dangerous. It has been made evident that the industry will exploit its workers and animals all to boost its profit.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Altamira, state of Para, north of Brazil on Sept. 1, 2019. Amazon rainforest destruction surged between August 2019 and July 2020, Brazil's space agency reported. Gustavo Basso / NurPhoto via Getty Images

According to Brazil's space agency (Inpe), deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged to its highest level since 2008, the BBC reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations Headquarters on February 4, 2020 in New York City. Angela Weiss / AFP / Getty Images

By Kenny Stancil

"The state of the planet is broken. Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal."

That's how United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres began a Wednesday address at Columbia University, in which he reflected on the past 11 months of extreme weather and challenged world leaders to use the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to construct a better world free from destructive greenhouse gas emissions.

Read More Show Less
Scaling up offshore renewable energy is one of the ways that governments can improve ocean sustainability efforts. BerndBrueggemann / Getty Images

On Wednesday, governments responsible for 40 percent of the world's coastlines and 20 percent of global fisheries announced a series of new commitments that comprise the world's biggest ocean sustainability initiative.

Read More Show Less
Sheep like these will no longer be exported from England and Wales for slaughter under a proposed ban. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

The UK has taken steps toward becoming the first European country to ban the export of live animals for slaughter.

Read More Show Less