Al Fin collected a few pages about biofuel sources that just beg a little closer look. (Monday August 4, 2008) That and I’m adding a research result from the University of Illinois to do first.

Professor Stephen Long in a Miscanthus Field

Professor Stephen P. Long at U of I has run a field trial of miscanthus and compares it to switchgrass and corn for the yield of ethanol. Long’s team set up fields scattered across Illinois. Both miscanthus and switchgrass are perennial so they need only planted once for several years of harvest; require fewer chemical and mechanical inputs than a crop like corn. The differences are in the biomass that can be made into ethanol. With the current technology switchgrass and corn yield about the same ethanol. But miscanthus gets going earlier and grows for a longer season; it seems to like “poorer” quality soils so may be used on land not suitable for food crops and locks up more carbon in the soil.

Thus to meet the current political goal of offsetting 20% of gasoline with biofuel would take 25% of the current land used for crop production. The same land allocation to miscanthus yield would net something on the order of 53% of gasoline use. Keep in mind that some part of the acreage would likely come from land not currently used for crops like corn or soybean. There is a lot of unused land and highly erode able land available to grow alcohol feed stocks. There are lots of details to be worked out, but note that the Europeans have been at this for over a decade and more than 12 U.S. firms are propagating test versions of miscanthus for U.S. production.

Old and New Russian Agriculture

On the land front the Russian federation has millions if not tens of millions of hectares (about 2.5 acres) available for fuel crops. The farm situation in the Russian Federation has been so dismal that much of the planet’s best soils are simply grown over by weeds as in some cases the entire population has migrated to the cities. The Bioenergy page links to a BBC story of two Brits that went to Russia and set themselves up on vacant land and are busily farming quite successfully. The only downside is that the best soils lie rather far to the north making for shorter seasons. But the yields for short season crops are the envy of farmers worldwide.

The same Bioenergy page notes that Russian situation has similar potentials in Sub-Saharan Africa. Again due to politics or genocide if you like, great swaths of highly productive land is simply out of production, so much so that there isn’t enough food to eat as we seem to see starvation regularly in one of the best food and fuel producing continents of the planet.

Make no mistake that the Russians don’t get it. Former president Vladimir Putin has called on the country’s former farmers to look at biofuels in hopes of reviving the agricultural sector. The Russian Ministry of Agriculture calculates that Russia’s vast lands could reach production equivalent to 7.7 million barrels of oil per day.

Reverend Giok Se Tjiong

The Reverend Giok Se Tjiong of Lakeland Florida has cross-bred a specific species of the afore mentioned miscanthus or elephant grass with sugar cane. With a high carbohydrate level the Reverend has been feeding cattle with his crossbred grass. Now get this – the grass Tjiong has is 71% carbohydrate for converting to simple sugars like glucose and sucrose that work best in making ethanol. Tjiong figures he can harvest in Central Florida twice per year with each getting 1,365 gallons or 2,730 per acre per year. Top corn yields about 500 gallons. That’s nearly a 5.5 fold increase – quite a difference. Professor Long, let me introduce Reverend Tjiong.

Back on the land topic the Caribbean nations had a meeting to look into what should be done to get out from under the oil price dilemma. Like the U.S. and other countries that have comparably lower taxes and fast market impacts on prices these nation are completely dependant on oil imports for transport and electrical generation. While not having a lot of land they have the widest possible choice in crops from sugar cane, jatropha, on to the diesel tree.

While we watch with increasing interest and hopes for the algae guys to get us to alternative diesel, another plant called the diesel tree just drips the stuff out of its bark. Native to Brazil the diesel tree is under close development by Chhandak Basu at the University of Northern Colorado and C. Neal Stewart, Jr. at the University of Tennessee. Basu got his sample species from Puerto Rico and hopes to clone the genes into species such as algae, weeds and other plants. Way early in the research these gentlemen have a tree that offers oeloresin a compound with similar properties to diesel fuel for further development.

This is the short list. A really short list about land and genetics. For all the harm, suffering and distress from high oil prices there is a bright light at the end of the journey. There will be competing sources of alternatives that will over time pull down the cost of powering life with fuels. My Lord, thanks for nature and the mind of man. It’s quite an interesting time to be alive.


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