"Miscanthus is now a commercial crop in Europe," said Long.
"They've been growing it in Denmark for 30 years. It's used in
Japan as a thatching material too. I saw that it had
considerable potential when I worked in Great Britain, and then
when I came to the U.S. one of my graduate students asked, 'Why
don't we grow it here?' We've been doing trials ever since and
having some remarkable success."
Long and Heaton got the
original plantings from the Chicago Botanical Gardens. They have
been conducting side-by-side comparisons of a similar North
American plant called switchgrass to the European miscanthus.
Switchgrass has been promoted as a future biomass crop for the
Midwest and was mentioned in the president's 2006 State of the
In aerial views, the growth difference is obvious. The
switchgrass plots next to miscanthus look like squares of
indoor-outdoor carpeting alongside squares of a dense shag rug.
In the 2004 trials, miscanthus outperformed switchgrass by
more than double and in the 2005 trials more than triple. Long
says, "Our results show that with miscanthus the president's
goal of replacing 30 percent of foreign oil with ethanol,
derived from agricultural wastes and switchgrass, by 2030 could
be achieved sooner and with less land."
Long is looking to the future. Currently, Illinois consumes 5
billion gallons of liquid fuel per year. He says that if just 10
percent of Illinois's 35.6 million acres of farmland were
dedicated to growing miscanthus, it would yield enough dry mass
to provide 4 billion gallons of fuel. There has been no breeding
of miscanthus, so it is likely yields could be increased yet
[to top of second column]
Heaton said that because of the high yields with minimal inputs,
farmers would make a profit if they received about $20 per ton. "The
closer the field is to the processing plant, the cheaper it gets,"
But there are still some barriers to miscanthus being welcomed
commercially. One is the planting cost, which is also true for
converting corn residue to ethanol. It is expected that improved
understanding of propagation and engineering of planting machinery
could reduce this substantially. Another possible negative is that
some related strains of miscanthus are fertile and so may become
The type of miscanthus that Long and Heaton study is a sterile
hybrid between two species, and Long says it is infertile. "It's
like when you cross a horse with a donkey and get a mule --
vigorous, but sterile." Long-term trials and environmental impact
studies in the European Union, from Sicily in the south to Denmark
in the north, have confirmed this lack of any invasive risk with the
Positive environmental benefits have also been found in Europe.
Miscanthus provides cover for breeding birds throughout the summer
and fall, unlike the row crops it replaced, and with little or no
nitrogen requirement it has decreased pollution of groundwater and
In the meantime, Long and Heaton will continue to conduct trials.
And Long says that there is a lot of interest from Illinois farmers
in growing miscanthus as a crop. Adoption, though, will depend on
the creation of markets for such biomass. Pellet-burning stoves,
purpose-built biomass heat and power plants, and cellulosic ethanol
plants are the most likely markets to develop here in Illinois.
of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental
Sciences news release]