Grasses and legumes have the potential to be more economical and environmentally sustainable than corn for ethanol production, says Donald Viands, a Cornell University plant breeder researching the crops’ biofuel potential. He and Cornell colleagues are evaluating the performance of warm- and cool-season grasses at different locations in northern New York. Their goal: to find which species and varieties will generate the maximum biomass production in the area.

“Corn is an annual crop that requires substantial inputs each planting year, whereas grasses and legumes are perennials that can be harvested for several years with very little input,” Viands says. “The cellulosic conversion process used to produce ethanol from grasses and legumes utilizes a greater percentage of the plant than the corn-ethanol conversion process, and perennial grasses reduce greenhouse gas emissions by sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere and reduce soil erosion through production of an extensive root system.”

In 2007, Cornell researchers planted warm-season perennial grasses (switchgrass, big bluestem, indiangrass, eastern gamagrass and coastal panic grass) at Belleville-Henderson Central School in Belleville, NY. Some varieties established better than others – a full report of the results is online at www.nnyagdev.org

“Large quantities of biomass will be needed to supply the cellulosic pilot ethanol conversion plants that are planned to be built in New York and are expected to be in operation in 12-18 months,” Viands says. “But there is a lack of data on the growth and development of different species of warm-season grasses in northern New York. Cool-season grasses are well-adapted to the north country, but may not yield as much as warm-season grasses in a low-input management system.”

Energy (Btus) and ethanol produced per acre from the various grasses planted in the New York trials will be assessed along with seedling vigor, ease of establishment and susceptibility to weed encroachment, disease and insect damage.