CHAMPAIGN – It grows fast, needs few nutrients and releases energy as biomass that could help Parkland College, and other institutions, reduce their reliance on petroleum.
There's already a 7-year-old miscanthus field near Parkland's red barn, and a family from Pesotum is finishing up planting a new field that will eventually be used to "seed" other plots.
Parkland College plans in the future, no date set yet, to install a biomass furnace at its H-building. The director of the physical plant, Jim Bustard, said the college is hoping to get a grant to cover the cost of the furnace.
The current plot is a "nursery" that will supply rhizomes to plant a larger plot that will generate enough miscanthus for significant amounts of fuel in about 2013.
Eric Rund of Pesotum is a miscanthus expert, and it's his family doing most of the work of putting miscanthus into the ground.
Rund said he originally got interested in the grass, which is native to Africa and Asia, as a substitute for corn in the production of ethanol. One acre of miscanthus provides three times as much ethanol energy as corn, he said. Rund said he got out of the ethanol interests and is more interested in sustainable fuels.
Miscanthus is also nearly greenhouse gas-neutral, since the carbon dioxide released in burning it is roughly equal to what the plant took from the air as it grew.
Rund has visited South America to study how the plant is used. The plants that are going in at Parkland are from the state of Georgia, but the company that owns the Georgia farm is Canadian.
"West Europe is far ahead of the United States in this field," Rund said.
Bruce Henrikson, the chair of Business and Agri-Industries at Parkland, said the college first planted miscanthus seven years ago, and now has a lush field of it.
"It grows very fast, without us adding much to the soil," he said.
In three years, the college will pull plugs from the new field, and they'll be transplanted, possibly to several sites in Champaign-Urbana.
Parkland agriculture Professor Larry Thurow said other colleges, such as Eastern Illinois University, are already using biomass as a major fuel source.