Grassland under spotlight as new energy crop

The UK's widespread pasture land could soon provide a sustainable biofuel developed from grass, according to scientists researching new energy crops.

Some two-thirds of the UK's agricultural land is grassland and our native ryegrass is one of the species being investigated for conversion to biofuel, Iain Donnison of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research said.

Development of a bioethanol from fermented grass cellulose could meet targets for biofuels, reduce reliance on petrol, provide income in rural economies and protect the existing landscape, he suggested.

Donnison outlined the possibilities of grass as a biofuel ahead of the introduction next week of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) which requires a rising percentage of transport fuels to come from renewables.

The obligation, which initially requires suppliers to source 2.5 per cent of forecourt fuel from biofuels and 5 per cent by 2010, has come under fire from green groups and aid agencies because of questions over the environmental and sustainable credentials of the renewable fuel.

But experts today said "second-generation" biofuels, which create liquid fuels from the breakdown of cellulose in plants, including waste products such as straw from wheat crops, were less than five years away.

According to Donnison, grass can be a "source of non-interruptable electricity, can produce heat and most interestingly can produce transport fuels and chemicals".

Ryegrass, which grows widely throughout parts of the UK already, has a high sugar content, can be harvested frequently and could be a highly sustainable fuel generated through fermentation.

It could also maintain the landscape and provide an alternative use for grass - and income - for livestock farmers amid dwindling numbers of animals and the current pressures of the industry.

Ryegrass is a particularly good candidate because it is not restricted by factors such as winter cold or water availability, can grow in more marginal areas not used for food production and does not demand much nitrogen fertiliser - especially when grown with clover, he said.

Richard Murphy of Imperial College London said second generation technology offered a significant potential for new liquid transport fuels and development was being driven by rising oil prices.

The new generation of biofuels - which are much more energy efficient because they have a much higher output of energy compared to the amount put in to grow them than the current crops - will be available within five years, he said.

They address a number of the current fears about biofuels, for example they can be co-products of agricultural crops and so growing them does not come into conflict with food production.

Biofuels have attracted critics for their part in forcing up food prices as land is switched over to growing energy crops and for contributing to forest clearances to provide more agricultural land.

But Murphy criticised the "free ride" being given to some "profligate and unnecessary" food products which have a high carbon footprint while biofuels are being put under much harder scrutiny.

Image: Super grass - a second-generation biofuel?

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