Grass – up in smoke

Unprecedented opportunities for bio-fuel development are occurring as a result of a number of simultaneous factors including the rising cost of oil, natural gas and electricity; the need for energy resource security; and climate change. Agriculture has a surplus production capacity to be more than a food producer.

Because of their efficient ability to collect solar energy, high yielding whole plant perennial bioenergy crops represent a promising opportunity to develop sustainable biofuels and support rural development. The path of developing native grasses on marginal farmlands as the best approach to creating sustainable energy sources from farmland has the potential of efficiently reducing greenhouse gases.

More than ever, we believe it is the the best long term option in temperate regions to ecologically produce appreciable quantities of energy sustainably from farmland. It is evident global expansion of the use of important food crops like corn and oilseeds as fuel will face a challenging future because of rising concerns with food inflation, food security, and world hunger.

How to produce renewable energy from farmland?

The need to find alternatives to replace increasingly expensive fossil fuels and reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions has peaked interest in biofuels around the world. The ability of agricultural plants to capture and store solar energy through photosynthesis holds great promise as a renewable energy solution for mankind. However, at the same time agriculture must maintain its primary energy production role: creating nutritious food for the human body. Sustainable biofuels must be developed that also ensure a continuous supply and delivery of fairly-priced food for the people of the world.

The first thing that can be done to make biofuels more sustainable is to develop energy crops that more efficiently capture solar energy to increase the overall energy produced per hectare. The best options are energy crops that can do this with less fossil energy use and can be productive on marginal farmland. Currently, cereal grains and oilseeds are being used to produce biofuels but these are not the most efficient option available.

Resource-efficient native perennial grasses are much better suited to this purpose. They have a number of desirable traits including that they: are adapted to marginal lands, require minimal fertility and management, are low cost to produce, have moderate to high yields, and produce 40 % more net energy gain per acre than corn.

The use of marginal farmland for bioenergy production also creates less conflict with the global food supply. The second thing that needs to be done is to efficiently convert the captured solar energy (known as biomass) into a useful energy form.

Scientists now understand that liquid fuels are the losers in the energy conversion game. It’s much more energy efficient to produce biogas and fuel pellets from biomass to replace fossil fuels. In a race to create energy security and limit greenhouse gas emissions, whole plant biomass crops converted into pellets or biogas beat turning seed crops into liquid biofuels hands down.

The research and development of biofuel pellets made from switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) for use in space heating applications (Bioheat). Ggrass, when pelletized, has shown to have considerable potential to displace oil, natural gas, and electricity used for heating fuel. This development can significantly reduce greenhouse gases and heating costs and sustainably assist the development of rural communities.

Converting grass into a viable energy option suitable for widespread application requires an energetically efficient, economical, and convenient energy transformation pathway to meet consumer energy needs. The recent development of advanced pellet stoves, boilers, and furnaces provides a practical pathway for grass biofuel pellets to be converted into heating energy.

These appliances are capable of burning moderately high-ash densified agricultural fuels at 80-90% efficiency. In these systems, grass pellets or briquettes are used much like wood pellets and can provide fuel conversion efficiencies and particulate emissions in the same range as modern oil furnaces. Each GJ of grass pellet energy directly substitutes for one GJ of oil, and can be utilized on a large scale without significant air pollution.

The pelletized grass biofuel systems builds on, and is likely to overtake, the existing wood pellet heating industry which is rapidly developing without any significant level of government intervention. Pelletized grass biofuel is poised to become a major fuel source because it is capable of meeting some heating requirements at less cost than all available alternatives. The cost-effectiveness of pelletized grass as a fuel results from:

  • efficient use of low cost marginal farmland for solar energy collection
  • minimal fossil fuel input in field production and energy conversion
  • replacement of expensive high-grade energy forms in space and water heating
  • minimal biomass quality upgrading which limits energy loss from the feedstock
  • efficient combustion in advanced, affordable, and user-friendly devices.

After years of research and development working with farmers, industry and scientists to grow, densify and burn grass pellets, the technical limitations to develop this industry are largely a thing of the past. The industry is now ready to emerge and fine-tuning of the production systems is being undertaken. A great number of resources are now available to guide you through the various steps of producing and/or using grass biofuel pellets. – It’s really you

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