It has an odd name, but a tall-growing plant from Asia could be Iowa’s next energy crop. Miscanthus is a relative of sugar cane and it’s about to become much more abundant in a state dominated by corn and soybeans.
Emily Heaton, an agronomy professor at Iowa State University, is working with miscanthus, which resembles bamboo. “When I look at a crop like this, I see a chance to make fossil fuels cleaner,” Heaton says, “because what we’re talking about doing is blending this very clean, grassy biomass with coal, so it just cleans up coal a little bit.” Miscanthus is native to Southeast Asia and it might remind Vietnam veterans of so-called elephant grass.
Researchers at ISU used a 1960s-era foil chopper to cut miscanthus on a test plot north of Ames. It makes 4×4 foot round bales, weighing between 300 and 500 pounds each. An acre of miscanthus can yield 15 tons of biomass fiber. Steve Schomberg of Muscatine County has the state’s largest miscanthus farm. “Miscanthus is such a new crop that it gets gawkers, yes, people stop along the road and talk to me about it, ‘What are you growing there?'” Schomberg says. “It’s something that I think is part of our future as farmers, growing bioenergy fuels.”
Schomberg’s crop will be turned into steam and electricity at the University of Iowa power plant. Ferman Milster, an engineer at the U-I, says the key challenge here is the absence of a biomass market. Milster says, “It’s not like a commodities market like coal or natural gas or oil, but I think given time and continued movement toward a more sustainable energy source, we will see biomass develop and continue to look more like a commodity.”
Micanthus is common in Europe. While the total crop in Iowa is now only about 50 acres, another 13 acres are being planted near Iowa City and the renewable energy staff is recruiting Iowa farmers to have 2,500 acres in production statewide by the end of 2016.
Heaton reminds everyone that at one time, soybeans were a novel crop here. “So how many acres of soybeans in Iowa did we have in the 1930s? Tens to hundreds, right?” Heaton says. “Soybeans are a crazy plant from Asia, miscanthus is kind of a crazy plant from Asia and I imagine that in ten years, it’s not unreasonable to think that we would have this on thousands of acres in the state at least, and millions in the future.”
Until the University of Iowa begins to convert miscanthus into energy, the harvest is meager and the tall grass is in limited use, as animal bedding or mulch. An ornamental variety of miscanthus is popular in landscaping. It’s a perennial and one planting may bring 20 years of harvests with limited chemicals necessary.