MSU-developed grass being studied as renewable energy source

STARKVILLE — A variety of grass developed at Mississippi State University is getting its moment in the sun as a biofuel ingredient, thanks to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement.

Freedom giant miscanthus, developed by Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station researcher Brian Baldwin and his colleagues, was selected as the crop of choice for one of two new Biomass Crop Assistance Program projects. BCAP funds help offset the expenses of planting renewable energy crops that can require several years to mature to the point of harvest.

Freedom is a patented cultivar of giant miscanthus, a grassy plant native to Asia and developed to thrive in Southern climates. When harvested, the plant can be refined into a liquid biofuel – an alternative to ethanol and petroleum-based products.

More than 4,000 acres of Freedom giant miscanthus and switchgrass will be grown in 11 North Carolina counties. These non-food energy crops will support a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery scheduled to begin operation in 2014.

Baldwin has worked with non-traditional crops for 20 years.

“No matter how good I think they are, it takes industry to pull the crops into the market,” Baldwin said. “It’s exciting to see an MSU product selected for such a significant national initiative.”

Baldwin said unlike corn and other annual crops, giant miscanthus is a perennial crop, so it grows back every spring. Perennial plants use energy to build a big root system and crown and develop disease resistance. This takes energy that an annual crop puts toward grain. As a result, perennial crops take two to three years to reach their maximum above-ground yield potential.

MSU filed a plant patent application for Freedom giant miscanthus in 2010 and licensed it to Georgia-based Repreve Renewables LLC. Repreve Renewables will be involved in all phases of the project, from propagation and planting to crop production.

In a press release sent out by the USDA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said these projects are the foundation for a stronger future in rural America.

“Increasing the production of renewable, home-grown fuels is vital to reducing our country’s reliance on foreign oil, while creating good-paying jobs and diversifying the agriculture economy,” Vilsack said.

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