Corn ethanol was once the undisputed darling of the biofuel industry, but the drought that withered last summer’s corn harvests down to the bone has highlighted the unsustainable tension between corn for fuel and corn for food, lending new urgency to the search for alternatives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been egging things along with new research, and the latest contender it has tapped is elephant grass, aka napiergrass or Pennisetum purpureum, a gigantic tropical grass that was introduced to the U.S. from Africa in 1913.
Elephant Grass Biofuel and Drought
Drought tolerance is a big sustainability issue for biofuel crops, and that has put the spotlight on switchgrass, camelina and other grasses and weedy plants that would do well in the West and Midwest without requiring too much in the way of irrigation.
That still leaves a huge chunk of the U.S. available for biofuel crop production where water supply is generally plentiful, and one of those areas is the southern tier of the Southeast.
Napiergrass has already had ample time to prove it can thrive in the Southeast, though it has made itself a little too comfortable in Florida, where it has gained a sketchy reputation as an invasive species partly due to its proclivity for growing along the sides of canals and clogging waterways.
Napiergrass as a Sustainability Twofer
If napiergrass can be managed properly, it would provide a couple of other benefits aside from producing feedstock for renewable biofuel. Its root system acts as a high-efficiency filtration mechanism that traps excess nutrients, so it could be cultivated on marginal lands as a form of runoff control or stormwater management.
USDA research has also revealed that napiergrass can grow just as well on used poultry litter as on commercial fertilizer, so acres of cultivated napiergrass could also serve as a way to manage the waste disposal chain from poultry farms.
A Race Against Time for Biofuel
The potential for a symbiotic relationship between napiergrass and the poultry industry is somewhat ironic, given the hot fued between the poultry industry and the biofuel industry. Our friends over at Biofuels Digest have the latest on the battle, which is coming to a head as legislators from eight poultry and livestock states have been lobbying heavily for the EPA to ease the pressure on feed prices that they claim is the result of too much corn going for biofuel production.
The legislators propose tweaking the Renewable Fuel Standard, which is administered by the EPA, to divert less corn for biofuel production. However, without making allowances for non-food biofuel crops, relaxing the Renewable Fuel Standard would deal a big blow to the biofuel industry just as new biofuel technologies for converting grasses and woody, non-food crops are breaking through to commercial success.
The massive new POET Project Liberty cellulosic biofuel plant in Iowa provides one well-known example of this transition, so it’s no surprise that POET has joined with a coalition of biofuel trade associations to launch a campaign to keep the Renewable Fuel Standard as-is.
The campaign, called FuelsAmerica, points out that the Renewable Fuel Standard already provides for contingencies such as a harvest-wrecking drought, enabling refiners to lower their production of corn ethanol in the short term while keeping the standard intact for the long run.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.