How Do Second-Generation Biofuels Work?
by John Perritano (HowStuffWorks) At first glance, the fields of miscanthus that blanket Sampson County, N.C., seem of little importance. Standing 4 feet (1.21 meters) taller than a basketball hoop, miscanthus is a giant, spiky, inedible — and some would say useless — grass. Yet, in the view of others, these oversized blades might one day be as valuable as gold, or at least a tank of gasoline. A company called Chemtex plans to build a $170 million refinery in Sampson County that will convert 20 million tons of miscanthus and other grasses into ethanol each year [source:Ramsey].
…But the future of biofuel as an alternative source of energy might not be as bleak as once thought. Thanks to miscanthus grass and other “second-generation” biofuel crops, the potential to lessen the world’s dependence on foreign oil has never been greater.
…Although it’s a difficult process to turn the waste products from plants, such as corn stalks, stems, leaves, husks and wood chips into biofuel, the potential benefits are enormous.
…Miscanthus is a great example of a second-generation biofuel crop. The grass is fast growing, drought-resistant and thrives in poor soil that cannot be used for food crops. Unlike corn and grain, miscanthus is a perennial. Farmers only have to plant it once and it will come back year after year. In addition, miscanthus and other second-generation crops require far less fertilizer and cultivation than first-generation crops, which translates into less environmental degradation and energy use.
In Sampson County, Chemtex hopes local farmers will plant miscanthus in the spring of 2013 so the company will have enough grass to feed its refinery when it opens a year later. Chemtex has already signed an agreement with Gulf Oil to purchase all of the ethanol the refinery produces. The company will build its facility on 166 acres. It should employee 300 people [source: Ramsey].
The miscanthus fields won’t be competing for land that corn and soybean farmers use. State officials have already identified 100,000 acres in a three-county region, including Sampson County, which farmers can use as biocrop farmland. Some of that acreage is marginal land at best. Some of it is sandy and would make it easy to grow miscanthus and other second-generation biofuel crops. Hog farmers already use some of those acres as hog-waste spray fields [source: Ramsey]. READ MORE