Money may not grow on trees, but energy could grow in grass. Researchers at the University of Illinois have completed the first extensive geographic yield and economic analysis of potential bioenergy grass crops in the Midwestern United States. Demand for biofuels is increasing as Americans seek to expand renewable energy sources and mitigate the effects of fluctuating energy prices. Corn ethanol is the main biofuel on the market, but demand for ethanol competes with corn’s availability as a food, and rising ethanol consumption could lead to higher food costs.

In recognition of this problem, federal regulations mandate that 79 billion liters of biofuels must be produced annually from non-corn biomass by 2022. Large grasses, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, could provide biomass with the added benefits of better nitrogen fixation and carbon capture, higher ethanol volumes per acre and lower water requirements than corn.

“It’s a better way to achieve our goals of energy security and climate change mitigation,” said Madhu Khanna, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at U. of I. “These two particular crops are among the more promising nonfood crops currently available for large-scale production.”

Next, the team will explore the cost of growing these grasses on non-cropland, or marginal land that’s ill suited for food productions. The grasses require less water and less fertilizer than corn or soybeans, and could thrive on land that’s currently unused for reasons of soil composition or difficult maintenance. It would cost a lot less for farmers to convert that land than acreagethat’s currently producing high amounts of other crops, ameliorating one of the major tradeoffs of biomass production.

“We clearly found that even if the yield of grasses is much higher, we need to think about the cost of producing them. That’s the bottom line,” Jain said.