Miscanthus state's first non-food bioenergy crop, others in the wings

Sept. 15, 2011
Contact Information:

Dr. Charles West, Professor of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences. Fayetteville. 479-575-3982, cwest@uark.edu.

By Howell Medders, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, 479-575-5647, hmedders@uark.edu.

Download story
charles west

BIOFUEL FEEDSTOCK -- Charles West, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture professor of crop, soil, and environmental sciences, studies performance of biofuel feedstock under different soil conditions at several locations. In these plot at the Arkansas Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fayetteville, both switchgrass and miscanthus (background) growth was suppressed by the summer drought.
(Click on image to download full-version resolution.)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Miscanthus giganteus will be the first non-food bioenergy crop to be grown in Arkansas for marketing as a renewable fuel feedstock, thanks to MFA Oil Biomass LLC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).

Other species are waiting in the wings as University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture scientists develop production systems for Arkansas conditions.

MFA Oil Company, based in Columbia, Mo., announced in a news release in June that its biomass subsidiary is contracting with farmers in northeast Arkansas to grow 5,588 acres of the perennial grass. About 9,500 acres more will be grown in central and southwest Missouri. Each project area has a four-year goal of 50,000 acres of miscanthus, the news release says.

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and partner agencies are studying miscanthus and other potential biofuel crops, with funding from the U.S. departments of agriculture and energy.

"We are researching feedstock production systems as part of a national effort to prepare for a possible technological breakthrough that would make it economically feasible to use cellulosic feedstock to produce ethanol and other biofuels," said Charles West, a professor of crop, soil and environmental sciences at Fayetteville.

The needed breakthrough is a cost-effective way to extract fermentable sugars for making ethanol from cellulosic biomass -- fibrous plant material such as grasses and trees.

MFA Oil Biomass plans to convert miscanthus into fuel pellets for burning in heating units ranging from agricultural to industrial scale. The supply chain it is creating would also service a possible future ethanol production system.

Incentives for participating farmers to help lay the groundwork for a biomass supply chain include paying up to 75 percent of planting costs and two years of payments up to $45 per ton beyond the selling price, the MFA news release says.

West said his research has focused on switchgrass, which yields less biomass per acre than miscanthus but is easier to establish and harvest using existing planting and haying equipment. "Both species give surprisingly high biomass yields with minimal use of fertilizers and no irrigation, yet miscanthus can better take advantage of favorable soil and weather conditions," West said.

Once established, switchgrass outperforms miscanthus under severe heat and drought conditions such as occurred this summer, West said. He added that he expects switchgrass yields would be more stable year-to-year on the drier, upland soils in Arkansas that are not used for traditional crops.

Neither species poses a significant threat of becoming an invasive weed, West said. Miscanthus hybrids planted for biofuel have sterile flowers that do not produce viable seeds. It is established by planting root sections called rhizomes, which spread very slowly. Precautions in crop management and transport will control its escape, he said.

Switchgrass can spread through its viable seed, but timely mowing or herbicide use easily kill escaped plants. It is native to all regions of Arkansas and provides good wildlife habitat, West said.

Highlights of biofuel feedstock research by the Division of Agriculture and partner agencies include the following.

-- Research to develop management systems for grasses, oilseed crops and fast-growing trees is conducted at Division of Agriculture locations near Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Colt, Dumas, Monticello, Gentry and Hope. Species include switchgrass, miscanthus, energy sorghum, sweet sorghum, canola, camelina, high-oil soybeans, cottonwood, black willow and other trees.

-- A cooperating farmer has planted 28 acres of switchgrass near DesArc for environmental impact research. The project includes canola, a winter oilseed crop, in Oklahoma and Kansas.

-- The USDA Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center at Booneville is the hub of the Southeast Regional USDA Biomass Research Center studying integrated bioenergy/livestock systems. Research includes testing energy cane (a type of sugar cane) breeding lines for cold tolerance. Miscanthus, switchgrass and energy sorghum are studied as alley crops between rows of pine trees.

-- The Arkansas Forest Resources Center in Monticello studies management and economic issues for use of timber harvest residue and fast-growing trees as biofuel feedstock in production systems with switchgrass. Cottonwood and willow varieties were established at the Pine Tree Research Station near Colt. The best varieties are selected for further testing. Small-scale tests are evaluating sycamore, sweetgum, black locust, silver maple and eucalyptus.

-- An algal flow-way at the Fayetteville Wastewater Treatment Plant and another to be added at the Division of Agriculture's Savoy research unit swine farm near Fayetteville are used to assess production of algae for biofuels while cleaning the waste water.

-- Economic analysis of the potential for biofuels feedstock is conducted by agricultural economists in Fayetteville and at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

-- A bioenergy laboratory at the division's Rice Research and Extension Center at Stuttgart focuses on processes such as gasification to transform solid biomass into a gas, and pyrolysis, which converts biomass into bio-oil, which is similar to fuel oil.

-- Rice hulls and other crop by-products as biofuel feedstock and pre-treatment of cellulosic feedstock are being studied in Fayetteville.