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Growing Grass for Gas

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The U.S. is in the middle of an ethanol revolution, or at least it's supposed to be. Scientists want to develop ethanol that doesn't use corn – so food prices won't go up. They've found a tall grass called miscanthus that can produce loads of ethanol – but they haven't perfected it yet. Shawn Allee reports some are trying to grow miscanthus before the ethanol revolution arrives.

You won't find much miscanthus near Decatur, Illinois.

Nope. Corn is crop number one.

But all this corn-growing has a downside.

Agronomist Stephen John offers to show it to me.

Shawn Allee: “Where are we?”

Stephan John: “Well, we're near the upper end of Lake Decatur, looking across at the city's dredge. Right now that dredge that is sucking up sediment from the lake bottom.”

John says corn can leave ground bare, and rain washes dirt and fertilizer pollution into this lake.

“Some of that nitrogen gets into streams and ditches into Lake Decatur, which had to develop a facility to protect drinking water.”

John wants farmers to protect soil from erosion and use less fertilizer.

One option is to grow grasses that hold soil and use less nitrogen. One candidate is that miscanthus grass the ethanol industry's interested in.

Problem is, no one buys miscanthus yet.

“So, the trick is how do you make it economically viable to get those grasses onto the land, how do you make that attractive?”

John says people are working on that problem.

Farmer Eric Rund stands near a patch of miscanthus grass. He's a pretty tall guy, but the grass is even taller.

Shawn Allee: “I'm putting my hand through here.”

Eric Rund: “It's like a jungle in there, it's like bamboo growth or something.”

Rund says corn farmers get kinda freaked out by miscanthus. It doesn't grow from seed, and unlike corn, it takes years to produce.

He says farmers need to experiment with it.

“And if we do that now, when ethanol production comes along, we will then have a reliable source of biomass for the ethanol plant.”

Rund says some farmers would grow miscanthus just to protect water and soil. But to make it mainstream, it's gotta be profitable.

“That's the key. No farmer's going to plant much of it unless there's a market for it and there's no market for it unless there's a steady supply of it, so the two are going to have to grow together.”

But what if that takes a while for the ethanol industry to come knocking? Who would use Rund's miscanthus?

I meet a guy who's working on a solution.

Gary Letterly: “What would you like to do, where would you like to start?”

Shawn Allee: “I want to see your furnace.”

I'm with Gary Letterly. He works with the University of Illinois.

He says in corn country, some people heat their homes with corn pellets. That gave him an idea on how to heat his office.

“And what you see here, it was a corn furnace, and we thought it would be just great if we could use that furnace and burn grass pellets.

Right next to the modified furnace, there's a plastic hopper full of miscanthus pellets.

They look like rabbit or hamster food, and they smell like grass.

“Look at high energy costs. This was very competitive with natural gas, and the very nice thing is being able to keep this value very close to home. The grass was produced within fifteen miles, the furnaces were produced within five miles, and the grass was processed into a pellet within 30 miles.”

Letterly says miscanthus offers enough local economic and environmental benefits that people should look into it now.

It already has potential to be a kind of super-star plant, with or without help from an ethanol industry may never come.

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