University harvesting alternative fuel

January 22, 2008 5:27:56 PM PST
Here we are in the depths of January and it's finally harvest time in west central Illinois. But this is no ordinary harvest. ABC7's Paul Meincke takes us to a farm field outside Champaign where researchers are unlocking secrets to new energy.Miscanthus Giganteus is its name. It grows 10-13 feet tall. It's a perennial grass, fairly resistant to pests, and bio-energy may be its future. Today is harvest day.

On a University of Illinois farm just outside Champaign there is a 12-acre plot of Miscanthus and its smaller, distant-cousin switch grass, which are being grown and studied. Miscanthus has bamboo-like stalks and leaves that can be ground up, compacted, and burned -- fairly cleanly -- to produce energy. And from this plant can also come ethanol.

"Right now it seems that the most cost-effective future will be liquid fuel production, and these bales are eventually going to be turned into ethanol," said Frank Dohleman, University of Illinois biomass energy coordinator.

Miscanthus has been used as an energy source in Europe for a number of years, and for at least the last five, it has been grown and studied at the University of Illinois, but now that research has an added impetus.

In February 2007, the governors of Illinois and California stood together to celebrate a half-billion dollar grant from British Petroleum.

That grant, teaming the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley, is meant to provide a leading edge in developing bio-energy and alternative fuels.

Miscanthus may ultimately offer a much higher yield of ethanol than corn now does, allowing the food versus fuel debate. But finding the most efficient and economical way to harvest it is the challenge these researchers face.

"Doing research that's going to make a difference in our lives, our children's lives and our grandchildren's lives, and it's exciting," said Kevin Kenney, Idaho National Laboratory.

This is the biggest Miscanthus research project anywhere. And the hope is that what is been grown outside Champaign will translate to a much larger scale and offer another option toward energy independence.

There is still a lot research to be done.

But one early estimate is that Miscanthus could produce three times the amount of ethanol per acre as corn.