Grass crop potential featured at biomass conference

By Erin Voegele | May 05, 2011

Purpose-grown energy crops show great potential in both the bioenergy and biorefining industries. Those leading the research and development of miscanthus and Giant King Grass were featured speakers at the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo. During a panel titled Seeing the Green in Grass: Increasing Yields and Reducing Costs, representatives of Repreve Renewables, Viaspace, Green Flame Energy and Mendel BioEnergy Seeds provided attendees with agronomy and commercialization updates.

Repreve President Phil Jennings spoke about his company’s work with Giant Miscanthus. According to Jennings, cultivation of the crop offers an important opportunity for the bioenergy industry to utilize a high yield, environmentally friendly feedstock. Giant Miscanthus is the best crop in the southeast for the growth of cellulosic materials, he said.

During his presentation, Jennings pointed out several specific benefits of the crop, including its environmental benefits, the potential for high yield, as well as a high profit potential for famers. He noted that current analysis projects yields measuring up to 25 tons per acre, depending on the specific variety grown, farming practices, geographical location and soil class.

Giant Miscanthus, which can reach heights of up to 15 feet, contains approximately 10 to 15 percent moisture at harvest. The perennial crop is also highly efficient when it comes to fertilizer use, Jennings said. In addition, it has been shown to be highly drought-tolerant with no known pests. Furthermore, the dense growth pattern of the grass tends to crowd out weeds. The sterile plant is grown using rhizomes.

One of the most attractive qualities of Giant Miscanthus is that the crop can be grown on marginal land. In fact, Jennings stressed that it’s an inefficient use of resources to grow the plant on highly-productive lands. “If you are [achieving] 200 bushel corn, you dang sure don’t need to be planting miscanthus on those kinds of soils,” Jennings said. “If you have 40 acres in the back of your farm that has low margin soils because of erodibility, etc., those are the areas where you plant miscanthus,”

While miscanthus can be cultivated over a wide swath of U.S. farmland, area suitable for Giant King Grass in the states is less plentiful. The crop is adapted primarily to tropical and subtropical regions. Like Giant Miscanthus, Giant King Grass grows very tall—reaching heights of up to four meters.

One significant benefit of the versatile, high yielding crop is that it can be harvested using “just-in-time” methods, which helps to mitigate many of the storage and logistics challenges that plague many other bioenergy crops. In addition to the fact that the crop can grow on marginal lands, Carl Kukkonen, CEO of Viaspace, noted that it is possible to harvest the crop two to three times per year.

During his presentation, Kukkonen said that there are many biobased industrial sectors that could take in Giant King Grass as feedstock, including power, thermal and biofuel applications. According to Kokkonen, the feasibility of these bioenergy and biorefining projects increases exponentially when the Giant King Grass plantations are co-located with the bioprocessing facility. This is due, in part, to the fact that co-location significantly reduces costs associated with logistics. “I want to emphasize that co-location is nice because you don’t have to bail, transport or store the feedstock,” Kokkonen said.

Eric Rund, owner and operator of Green Flame Energy, an affiliate of New Energy Farms, and Donald Panter, president and CEO of Mendel BioEnergy Seeds, were also featured speakers during the panel.


(Editors Note: This is a report from BBI International’s International Biomass Conference & Expo, taking place May 2 to 5 at the America’s Center in St. Louis. More than 1,300 people registered for the event , divided into six feedstock-specific tracks with four focus areas. The event was sponsored by Ethanol Producer Magazine’s sister publications, Biomass Power & Thermal and Biorefining Magazine.)