April 14, 2005

Grass Fuel May Provide Clean Alternative to Gas

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As spring brings warmer weather and sunnier days, many Cornell students can be found sitting on the grassy parts of the Arts quad studying, listening to music or talking with friends. Most of them probably don’t realize that they’re sitting on top of a potent biofuel.

Prof. Jerry Cherney, the E.V. Baker Professor of Agriculture, has been researching grass as biomass since 1982. For the past three years, he has focused on the possibility of using grass, in pellet form, as a possible fuel.

“The current technology is very simple,” Cherney said. “Even with no stoves specifically designed to burn grasses, several stoves we have tested can burn grasses.”

Grasses are easy to grow, and could provide supplemental income for farmers if the technology were used widely, explained Peter Woodbury Ph.D ’02, a research associate in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

“The basic idea is to grow existing mixed grasses, or even ‘old field’ vegetation, which may include goldenrods and some small shrubs, for biomass,” Woodbury said. “This biomass can be turned into pellets and burned in specially designed stoves. These stoves are designed to have efficient combustion and low emissions of air pollutants. Grasses can be grown on land that is not suitable for growing other crops such as corn or soybeans.”

Since last summer, Woodbury has been working with a group of Cornell researchers led by Prof. John Duxbury, crop and soil sciences, in the Agricultural Ecosystems Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One of the team’s goals is to analyze biomass production options in New York State.

Cherney explained that burning grass pellets has important advantages over burning fossil fuels.

“[The technology is] essentially greenhouse gas neutral, grasses are just recycling the carbon,” he said.

Woodbury further explained the advantages of burning grass over other alternatives.

“There is enough land in New York State to produce biomass for energy, and we can use this biomass to reduce fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions,” he said. “From an environmental perspective, particularly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there is much more benefit to burning grass or even burning corn than to turning corn into ethanol. This is because the current process for producing ethanol from corn is not very efficient.”

He also pointed out that grass is a renewable resource, which can be grown in a short period of time, and that it would be relatively easy for farmers to grow grass crops to supplement their incomes.

“They already have the equipment and the expertise, [and] harvest of grass biomass does not conflict with other tasks,” he said.

Jenifer Wightman M.S. ’02, a research support specialist who is coordinating research and outreach efforts in the area of biofuels, said that using grass as a biofuel would help revive local economies and reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

“In 2003, the U.S. had a negative energy trade deficit of $139.5 billion,” she said. “Money spent on locally-produced energy will invigorate local communities.”

Wightman, who organized presentations to local farmers and businesses that highlighted this technology, has been impressed with the response it has received.

“We’ve had a huge interest in grass pellets,” she said. “From barber shops interested in heating their shops, to pellet stove dealers … to farmer co-ops, private businesses … and more.”

According to Cherney, the technology to satisfy this interest is already available. Then why aren’t grass pellets and grass-burning stoves widely sold on the market today? Cherney explained that it has to do with a lack of funding subsidies that would be necessary to jump-start the industry.

“[The technology] is too simple,” he said. “It does not attract funding for development [or] demonstration. If we could just get someone to use nanotechnology to develop microscopic nanobots to clean off the stove window, we could attract plenty of funding to this technology.”

Cherney pointed out that grass does not have a political lobby, which puts it at a major disadvantage, as compared to other fuels.

Wightman said that she is optimistic that the technology will be widely available someday, and summed up her sentiments with the slogan, “Burn grass, not gas.”

Archived article by Andrew Beckwith
Sun News Editor