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Professor: Use More Grass, Less Corn For Biofuels

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Switchgrass

A man stands in field of switchgrass, in Brookings, S.D. (Credit: AP)

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URBANA, Ill. (CBS) — Illinois’ environment would be better with more grass and less corn – in the opinion of a University of Illinois researcher.

As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Dave Dahl reports, plant biologist Evan DeLucia is advocating the use of certain grasses in areas where corn is grown for ethanol, but the yield is low.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Dave Dahl reports

The grasses he has in mind are switchgrass and miscanthus, two crops that like corn, can be used to generate ethanol for fuel.

“One of the real advantages of using what are called second-generation biofuel crops – these are crops where you’re using the leaves and stems rather than just the starches and sugars – one of the real advantages of these crops is that they’re perennial. They come back year after year, like switchgrass and miscanthus, and they’re very low input,” he said.

Perennial crops accumulate more carbon in the soil – and thus make for better biofuel – than annual crops such as corn or soybeans, according to the Environmental News Service.

More biodiversity would also benefit the Midwest ecosystem, DeLucia explained.

“One of the things that attracts me to using these bio-energy crops is not only mitigating atmospheric carbon dioxide, but as a 25-year resident of the Midwest, it’s an extraordinarily interesting landscape that from an ecological perspective is extremely degraded – very low biodiversity, a low number of crops on the landscape. It’s very leaky for nitrogen,” he said.

DeLucia says it will be years before the market supports growing grasses instead of corn, but he says his numbers show the use of the land that way would be more efficient and more environmentally-friendly.

The U of I began growing corn, miscanthus and switchgrass side by side in experimental plots in Urbana in 2005, according to the Environmental News Service.

In 2008, crop professor Stephen Long pointed out that switchgrass required less mechanical and chemical input than corn, but had yields of about equivalent amounts for biofuel, the news service said.

But miscanthus was at least twice as productive, with better efficiency converting sunlight into biomass through photosynthesis. Plants usually only have about 0.1 percent efficiency in converting sunlight to biomass, but miscanthus has about 1 percent efficiency, Long told the news service in 2008.

The project to test growing miscanthus and siwtchgrass alongside was aimed at finding low-carbon or carbon-neutral alternative fuels, the news service said.

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