PI Original Mose Buchele Monday March 31st, 2008, 5:02pm

On The Alternative Energy Horizon: Tropical Maize

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expecting corn production to drop in Illinois this year. In a previous post, I wrote about how the nitrogen fertilizer used to cultivate corn damages rivers and coastlines. Lower production could begin to mitigate that damage, but even ...

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expecting corn production to drop in Illinois this year. In a previous post, I wrote about how the nitrogen fertilizer used to cultivate corn damages rivers and coastlines. Lower production could begin to mitigate that damage, but even with an eight percent decrease from last year, the amount of corn being grown remains at near record levels. The higher demand for the crop is largely due to expanding ethanol technology.

Thanks to research being conducted by University of Illinois crop scientist Fred Below, however, there's another biofuel source on the horizon: tropical maize. This little-know, South American crop doesn't require hazardous fertilizers and could potentially be more energy- and cost-efficient than switchgrass and other non-corn biofuel sources. Last fall, Science Daily reported on Below's findings:

Early research results show that tropical maize, when grown in the Midwest, requires few crop inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer, chiefly because it does not produce any ears. It also is easier for farmers to integrate into their current operations than some other dedicated energy crops because it can be easily rotated with corn or soybeans, and can be planted, cultivated and harvested with the same equipment U.S. farmers already have. Finally, tropical maize stalks are believed to require less processing than corn grain, corn stover, switchgrass, Miscanthus giganteus and the scores of other plants now being studied for biofuel production.

According to the research, tropical maize would require less processing because it stores a great deal of sugar in its stalks, whereas conventional "hybrid" corn must first be converted into sugar before being fermented into alcohol.

One downside? Because tropical maize doesn't grow tasty ears, a boost in its production won't lower the rising cost of corn and other foods at the supermarket. That being said, it may ultimately help make it cheaper to get there.

Image courtesy of the University of Illinois. 

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