WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT ALTERNATIVES TO FOSSIL FUELS, ETHANOL often tops the list. It is widely used and relatively cheap to produce, with corn being the largest source of ethanol in the United States. Unfortunately, corn is also the most common ingredient in commercial food products, and critics say that these competing uses have driven up food prices. Colleges and universities are leading the field in the study of biomass?plant and animal waste?as a clean, renewable energy source that doesn’t deplete a vital food source. Here are just a few examples:
? Researchers at the University of Minnesota are experimenting with densified corn stover (the leaves and stalks of corn plants left after harvest) as a fuel for heat and power applications. They are also studying other sources of herbaceous biomass, such as straw and alfalfa. Also, the University of Minnesota, Morris has built a biomass gasification facility that will provide up to 80 percent of the campus’s heating and cooling needs. The gasification plant is one step toward UMM’s goal of reaching energy self-sufficiency by 2010.
? Virginia Tech has developed technology being used by a local company to turn common switchgrass into ethanol. Ethanol made from switchgrass, a perennial grass that grows throughout most of the country, burns cleanly and can be produced and delivered at a lower cost than fossil fuels.
? Researchers at the University of Illinois are studying miscanthus, another common grass, as a fuel source. According to Professor Stephen Long, miscanthus can produce about two and a half times the amount of ethanol that can be produced per acre of corn.
? Duckweed, a tiny aquatic plant, is being studied at North Carolina State University. Grown in wastewater, duckweed can produce five to six times more starch per acre than corn?which means more ethanol production?according to professor Jay Cheng.
? A program at Texas A&M University determined that mesquite?generally considered a nuisance plant by ranchers?could produce up to 200 gallons of ethanol per ton.