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Horticulture Center


Biomass Research

While perennial grasses such as switchgrass and Miscanthus have been used as ornamental plants for decades, they have more recently become the focus of intense research as biomass sources to generate ethanol for powering vehicles and burnable fuels for generating electricity and heat.

In an effort to break our addiction to foreign oil, the United States has set a goal of generating 60 billion gallons per year of a “new kind of ethanol” from biomass by the year 2030. Dr. John Sedbrook, Dr. Gary Bachman, Dr. William Perry, Dr. Roger Anderson, and others at Illinois State University are researching ways to make bioenergy crops more suitable for fuel production while at the same time determining how these new crops will impact the environment and local economies.

Figure 1. Despina Kaloriti, a Department of Biological Sciences student working with Dr. John Sedbrook, tends an experimental plot of Miscanthus x giganteus at the Horticulture Center site along Raab Road. When mature, these plants will stand nearly 12 feet tall and yield up to 18 tons of dried biomass per acre. In theory, as much as 96 gallons of ethanol could be generated from a ton of biomass, which equates to 1,700 gallons of ethanol per acre of farmland. Miscanthus x giganteus is a sterile hybrid that arose naturally in Japan via cross-pollination between Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus.

Figure 2. Planting of an experimental plot of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum, variety ‘Cave-In-Rock’) at the Horticulture Center site. Switchgrass is a native plant of North America that, when mature, can stand over 6 feet tall and yield as much as 15 tons of dried biomass per acre. The ‘Cave-In-Rock’ variety was collected near Cave-In-Rock, Illinois by R. K. Lawson and V. B. Hawk in 1958.

Figure 3. Dr. Robert Rhykerd, a soil scientist in ISU’s Agriculture Department, collects soil samples at newly established sites of Miscanthus and switchgrass plants. When mature, the dense roots of these plants will extend as much as 8 feet into the ground, storing massive amounts of carbon that improve soil quality and lock up carbon that would otherwise be in the form of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.