Miscanthus: Reducing the Establishment Costs

Miscanthus-Elephant-GrassMiscanthus has been lauded as a dynamic high potential biomass crop for some time now due to its high yields, low input requirements and perennial nature. Miscanthus is commonly used as a biomass fuel to produce heat and electricity through combustion, but studies have found that miscanthus can produce similar biogas yields to maize when harvested at certain times of the year.  Miscanthus is a C4 grass closely related to maize and sugarcane, it can grow to heights of three metres in a single growing season.

High Establishment Costs

However, high establishment costs have impeded the popularity of the crop. High establishment costs of miscanthus are as a result of the sterile nature of the crop, which means that miscanthus cannot be propagated from seed and instead must be propagated from vegetative material. The vegetative material commonly used is taken from the root structure known as rhizomes; rhizome harvesting is a laborious process and when combined with low multiplication rates, results in a high cost for miscanthus rhizomes. The current figure based on Irish figures is €1,900 ha for rhizomes.

Promising Breakthrough

Research conducted in Teagasc Oak Park Carlow Ireland, suggests that there may be a cost effective of method of propagating miscanthus by using the stem as the vegetative material rather than having to dig up expensive rhizomes. The system has been proven in a field setting over two growing seasons and plants have been shown to be perennial.

A prototype planter suitable for commercial up scaling has been developed to sow stem segments of miscanthus. Initial costs are predicted at €130 ha for plant material. The image below shows the initial stem that was planted in a field setting and the shoots, roots, and rhizome developed by the stem at the end of the first growing season.

miscanthus-stem

Feedstock for AD Plants

Switching from maize to miscanthus as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion plants would increase profitability and boost the GHG abatement credentials of the systems. Miscanthus is a perennial crop which would provide a harvest every year once established for 20 years in a row without having to be replanted compared to maize which is replanted every year. This would provide an obvious economic saving as well as allowing carbon sequestration in the undisturbed soil.

There would be further GHG savings from the reduced diesel consumption required for the single planting as opposed to carrying out heavy seedbed cultivation each year for maize. Miscanthus harvested as an AD feedstock would also alleviate soil compaction problems associated with maize production through an earlier harvest in more favourable conditions.

Future Perspectives

Miscanthus is a nutrient efficient crop due to nutrient cycling. With the onset of senescence nutrients in the stem are transferred back to the rhizome and over-wintered for the following year’s growth. However the optimum date to harvest biomass to produce biogas is before senescence. This would mean that a significant proportion of the plants nutrient stores would be removed which would need to be replaced. Fertiliser in the form of digestate generated from a biogas plant could be land spread to bridge nutrient deficiencies. However additional more readily available chemical N fertiliser may have to be applied.

Some work at Oak Park on September harvested miscanthus crops has seen significant responses from a range of N application rates. With dwindling subsidies to support anaerobic digestion finding a low cost perennial high yielding feedstock could be key to ensuring economic viability.

Resource Base for Second-Generation Biofuels

second-generation-biofuelsSecond-generation biofuels, also known as advanced biofuels, primarily includes cellulosic ethanol. The feedstock resource base for the production of second-generation biofuel are non-edible lignocellulosic biomass resources (such as leaves, stem and husk) which do not compete with food resources. The resource base for second-generation biofuels production is broadly divided into three categories – agricultural residues, forestry wastes and energy crops.

Agricultural Residues

Agricultural (or crop) residues encompasses all agricultural wastes such as straw, stem, stalk, leaves, husk, shell, peel, pulp, stubble, etc. which come from cereals (rice, wheat, maize or corn, sorghum, barley, millet), cotton, groundnut, jute, legumes (tomato, bean, soy) coffee, cacao, tea, fruits (banana, mango, coco, cashew) and palm oil.

Rice produces both straw and rice husks at the processing plant which can be conveniently and easily converted into energy. Significant quantities of biomass remain in the fields in the form of cob when maize is harvested which can be converted into energy.

Sugarcane harvesting leads to harvest residues in the fields while processing produces fibrous bagasse, both of which are good sources of energy. Harvesting and processing of coconuts produces quantities of shell and fibre that can be utilised while peanuts leave shells. All these lignocellulosic materials can be converted into biofuels by a wide range of technologies.

Forestry Biomass

Forest harvesting is a major source of biomass energy. Harvesting in forests may occur as thinning in young stands, or cutting in older stands for timber or pulp that also yields tops and branches usable for production of cellulosic ethanol.

Biomass harvesting operations usually remove only 25 to 50 percent of the volume, leaving the residues available as biomass for energy. Stands damaged by insects, disease or fire are additional sources of biomass. Forest residues normally have low density and fuel values that keep transport costs high, and so it is economical to reduce the biomass density in the forest itself.

Energy Crops

Energy crops are non-food crops which provide an additional potential source of feedstock for the production of second-generation biofuels. Corn and soybeans are considered as the first-generation energy crops as these crops can be also used as the food crops. Second-generation energy crops are grouped into grassy (herbaceous or forage) and woody (tree) energy crops.

Grassy energy crops or perennial forage crops mainly include switchgrass and miscanthus. Switchgrass is the most commonly used feedstock because it requires relatively low water and nutrients, and has positive environmental impact and adaptability to low-quality land. Miscanthus is a grass mainly found in Asia and is a popular feedstock for second-generation biofuel production in Europe.

Woody energy crops mainly consists of fast-growing tree species like poplar, willow, and eucalyptus. The most important attributes of these class species are the low level of input required when compared with annual crops. In short, dedicated energy crops as feedstock are less demanding in terms of input, helpful in reducing soil erosion and useful in improving soil properties.