Illinois is investing in a greener future for power production. This future is in the roots of a 12-foot tall perennial grass called miscanthus. Here at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, a team of 15 researchers has experimented with the crop for the past six years. It's a prospective plant for biofuel production, whose benefits seem to outweigh its difficulties in growing and harvesting.
"We're testing to see which grass will give you the most biomass for biofuel," said student Callan Beeson. "We're trying to figure out cost effectiveness and which crop works the best to make biofuel."
Beeson works for a graduate student who works for a professor that specializes in this kind of crop science. He does a lot of fertilizer testing with three different crops: switchgrass, prairie corn grass and miscanthus.
"I like being outside a lot more," he said. "It's hard to find a job where you get paid to go outside. It's a cool research job that works with my school schedule."
The junior, who is majoring in horticulture, works an average of 17 hours per week during the school year, and plans on working 40 hours a week during the summer months.
"The stuff that I'm doing is tedious work, you're doing a job over and over, like grinding grass samples," said Beeson.
Beeson isn't too keen on the lengthy process involving crop research, but he found an important summer job that could impact the future of biofuel.
Miscanthus is a prospect among other local crops including corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel for alternative energy sources. The grass is burned or treated with enzymes to produce sugars that can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol — the stuff that powers fuel-based machines.
Europeans have already started growing the giant crop and use it to produce biomass to burn for heat and electricity.
Here at Illinois, researchers have grown it side-by-side with other crops, and found interesting results. Miscanthus produced more than double the biomass of other crops like switchgrass, per acre.
The miracle plant is composed of ten other grass species that are all native to Asia. It's a hybrid, cultivated similarly to seedless tomato, watermelon and bananas. In Central Illinois, its prime season begins in April and ends in October. Not to mention, approximately 5-10 shoots develop per square foot — that yields 10-15 tons per acre.
Beeson said the team of researchers is working on making it the most cost effective for every acre it's grown on.
It still has a long way to go before going on the market, but Miscanthus is one crop Illinois farmers are certainly keeping their eyes on.