Saving the world with giant grasses

This could well be Dr. Emily Heaton’s personal motto, as she works to better understand the ins and outs of growing Miscanthus giganteus, a giant grass with outstanding bioenergy potential!  Heaton is an Associate Professor of Agronomy at Iowa State University, and much of her miscanthus research is being done collaboratively with the University of Iowa, through their Biomass Fuel Project.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ve heard a little bit about this great synergy in an earlier September blog post titled A Cy-Hawk Collaboration on Conservation. Here’s your chance to dig in deeper, as this month’s Conservation Chat podcast features an engaging dialogue with Emily Heaton as well as Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, Environmental Compliance Specialist with the University of Iowa.

conservationchat-miscanthusBack in 2010, the University of Iowa set 7 sustainability targets for its campus and its operations, one of which is to acquire 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Their Biomass Fuel Project officially got underway in 2012, and the partnership was underway – working with not just ISU, but public and private entities to start growing miscanthus grass as a bioenergy feed source on land within a 50 mile radius of Iowa City. There are currently 500 acres of miscanthus being grown, with the goal of getting to 2500 acres.

Miscanthus offers great potential as a bioenergy crop because it is a very high yielding perennial crop, and while not native to Iowa, it is sterile so that eliminates the potential for spreading/invasiveness. Further it can offer numerous benefits to the Iowa landscape in terms of both water quality and soil health!  I like Heaton’s analogy that the rhizomes of the miscanthus plant act a lot like rebar does in concrete – adding great structural stability to the soil, minimizing erosion, and the deep roots helping to build soil organic matter.

There are numerous benefits to miscanthus in Iowa, but also a whole handful of challenges when introducing a new crop: figuring out how to best grow it and harvest it (timing is critical), developing a market and creating a business structure for miscanthus, and operational challenges of utilizing biomass as a fuel source in facilities that were designed for coal!  Gronstal Anderson and Heaton reflect on these challenges, opportunities, and more in this month’s Conservation Chat podcast – listen at www.conservationchat.org or on iTunes.

Finally, FYI, today is also International Podcast Day! It’s a day dedicated to promoting podcasting worldwide through education and public engagement. In celebration, check out previous episodes of the Conservation Chat for engaging dialogue about all things water, soil, and conservation across the state of Iowa, or share a favorite episode with family or friends.

Ann Staudt