MISSISSIPPI STATE – Collaboration between a Mississippi State University research agronomist and Georgia’s self-proclaimed “sodfather” may offer the Southeast the “Freedom” to be the center of alternative energy production in the United States.
The focus of MSU’s research is Giant miscanthus, or Miscanthus x giganteus, a warm-season Asian grass that many scientists believe has great potential as a biomass crop for fuel. MSU’s research team, led by Dr. Brian Baldwin, has gone a step further in isolating, identifying and developing a genotype of this species suited for agricultural production in the South. Baldwin’s 12-year biomass research has culminated in an exclusive licensing agreement between MSU and turfgrass magnate Phillip Jennings of Soperton, Ga., who has incorporated his ideas about alternative energy into REPREVE Renewables.
Jennings will have an exclusive license for the MSU genotype, “Freedom” Giant miscanthus, and intends to make it commercially available in the spring of 2010. He plans to have several hundred acres of “Freedom” foundation stock in cultivation at his turfgrass production farm in Soperton.
“Many researchers around the world have proven Giant miscanthus works well in capturing energy from the sun for biofuel,” Jennings said. “Dr. Baldwin’s investigation identified ‘Freedom’ as a superior variety compared with other genotypes of this plant and other biomass alternatives. This is probably one of the best discoveries ever made that will allow America to be much less reliant on foreign-based sources of energy.”
Baldwin began his research in 1998 to investigate yield potential of different grass varieties considered to be possible sources of suitable biomass for fuel. He chose 10 promising species of plants to evaluate. When Baldwin compared results, Giant miscanthus consistently landed in the top four. It outperformed its nearest competitor, switchgrass, by a ratio of at least 2:1.
“Yields and performance have allowed us to quantify the difference,” Baldwin said. “Yields for ‘Freedom’ Giant miscanthus averaged from 18-20 tons an acre in the variety trials. When compared with the performance of switchgrass, ‘Freedom’ produced the same yields on about half the acreage. That gives the grower a good fit for a production scheme and the ability to meet supply needs when biomass is converted into fuel and other energy.”
Because “Freedom” Giant miscanthus produces sterile seed, it must be propagated with plant cuttings, or rhizomes.
“It takes considerable time to obtain material for propagation,” said Chase Kasper, who coordinates the commercial licensing of agricultural technology for Mississippi State University. “We sent Phillip a handful of plants a few years ago to evaluate the material, and he embarked on building foundation stock.”
Since that time, REPREVE Renewables has worked diligently to produce plant material that will now be registered, certified and available in the spring of 2010, Kasper said.
Giant miscanthus can offer several advantages to growers. It is a perennial plant, and once rhizomes establish over a three-year period, they produce biomass that can grow as tall as 12 feet. The plant thrives on marginal cropland, is tolerant of drought and excessive rain, and requires few inputs.
Giant miscanthus is harvested in the same manner as hay, and usually cut at the end of the year. After harvest, the plant goes dormant until spring. Yet another advantage is the plant’s ability to store nutrients in its root system, thus returning organic material to the soil.
“There is going to be a tremendous bioenergy revolution in the Southeast because of Phillip Jennings’ commitment and influence,” Baldwin said. “The next steps for Phillip are to continue maintenance of his foundation nursery for ‘Freedom’ and provide plant material to landowners, turfgrass businesses, plant propagators and farmers across Georgia and the rest of the Southeast.”
This is exactly how Jennings plans to launch “Freedom.”
“We will be able to achieve energy independence with biofuel production,” Jennings said. “Corn-to-ethanol production was a wonderful first step, but ethanol is not a long-term solution because its energy output is low. It is going to take educational research and industrial commitment by industry to help rural America produce energy. Mississippi State University has done its part, and I am ready to do mine.”