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Grasses Better Than Corn For Ethanol Production, Says New Study

grasses growing in a test plot

The perennial grasses Miscanthus and switchgrass have several potential advantages over corn as a source of biomass for liquid fuel. A new study suggests a shift to these second-generation biofuel crops would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while making progress toward the EPA’s mandate for 16 billion gallons of fuel from second-generation biofuel crops by 2022. Institute for Genomic Biology

New research from the University of Illinois shows producing ethanol from grasses rather than corn could significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. without affecting food production. 

The grasses -- Miscanthus and switchgrass -- grow year-after-year without replanting and require less fertilizer than corn.

Previous research had shown that if 40 percent of the land used for growing corn in the Midwest were switched to biofuel grasses, it would change the entire agricultural Midwest “from a net source of greenhouse gas emissions… to a net sink,” according to Evan Delucia, professor of plant biology at Illinois. 

But he says that 2011 study was a bit unrealistic because, “many farmers are not going to replace corn growing on very productive land… with lower-value bioenergy crops.”

In the new study, the researchers applied realistic economic constraints to their model. For example, they assume farmers will use their less-productive land for growing the bioenergy crops. They now report that the switch could reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the US by at least 7 percent and meet the Renewable Fuel Standard target of 32 billion gallons with negligible affects on food production.

The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Energy.