Illinois Sustainable Technology Center - University of Illinois


Forgotten Resource Studied for Sustainable Energy Crops

You see acres and acres of it on most of your car trips.

Grasses. Along rights-of-way and medians it grows along much of Illinois' 16,500 miles of state highways.

grasses cultivated along highways are being considers as a biofuel sourceThese long, narrow green spaces are important for pedestrian and motorist safety as well as habitat for native insects, birds, and animals surrounded by cultivated fields. Taxpayers' money is used to mow the grass from springtime into fall.

A team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is helping the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) to consider these lands for growing native grasses for renewable energy use.

The multi-year project is part of IDOT's Transforming Transportation for Tomorrow vision which includes "the development of innovative solutions to increase sustainability within the infrastructure system and to share a commitment to environmental stewardship and innovation."

ISTC has been a key partner in evaluating native grass species for their suitability for use in commercial stoves and for larger scale bale furnaces. It is one utilization option being investigated - providing heat in IDOT vehicle garages and other facilities.

ISTC has evaluated four native plants as potential feedstocks: switchgrass, big bluestem, indiangrass, and prairie cordgrass. Each species has varying water and energy content, and produces different ash and emissions profiles.

Team aqua ally won the competition Various native grass species are planted in discrete plots along an Illinois roadway to compare the properties of each as feedstock for biofuel production.

Analysis at ISTC showed switchgrass pellets performed best when mixed with 50 percent wood pellets. The switchgrass/wood mixture burned as efficiently as 100 percent wood pellets in commercially available stoves. Emissions were comparable to wood except for higher NOx emissions from switchgrass.

Measurements by the team showed that 1 metric ton of cordgrass, for instance, can yield 77.11 gallons of ethanol or approximately 76 gallons of biodiesel precursors (ABE), according to B.K. Sharma, senior research engineer at ISTC.

The team has been organized to develop implementable options by including expertise in crop sciences, business innovation, logistics, biological engineering, applied technology and chemistry. It is led by Hans Blaschek, director of the U of I's Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research and the new Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory.

The team is progressing broadly to find the most commercially viable approaches to using the highway corridors, from which grasses, processes, products, to which markets could be developed.

Fermentation is also being studied to produce biodiesel or ethanol from grasses harvested along roadways.


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