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MISCANTHUS  genetic experiment © Aline Waquet

Miscanthus, a very promising plant...

Updated on 11/06/2015
Published on 02/15/2013

Since 2006, INRA has been studying the potential of miscanthus as a source of biomass for green chemistry in a long-term experiment set up at the Estrées-Mons site near Amiens in the north of France. The research focuses on the genetic traits favourable to the production and transformation of biomass as well as the environmental consequences of the introduction of this new crop which comes from Asia.

Renewable carbon vs fossil carbon

In a world faced with dwindling fossil fuels and climate change, the production of renewable carbon is all-important. Biomass is not only an alternative source of energy, but also of carbonated molecules, thanks to processing in bio-refineries. If used wisely, it can help keep greenhouse gases in check. A number of R&D projects are underway at INRA to develop these bio-refineries, including Futurol, dedicated to  the production of second-generation biofuels.

The importance of dedicated crops

To rise to these new challenges, whole plants must be used, and no longer just the seeds, such as rapeseed to produce biodiesel, or wheat or maize seeds to produce ethanol. In other words, even parts such as leaves and stems must be put to good use, and in particular the cell walls of plants, which are made of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. The result will be a diversification of biomass sources: post-harvest residue such as straw, forest resources or urban waste. But this will probably not be enough, and a portion of biomass must also be produced from dedicated crops. These crops can be annual, such as sorghum or maize, pluriannual such as alfalfa, or perennial such as miscanthus or switchgrass.

Miscanthus, a promising plant

A perennial plant of the Poaceae family (formerly known as Graminaee), miscanthus is an up-and-coming biomass crop thanks to particularly high yields requiring little input. Miscanthus is already grown in France, but its use is currently restricted to fuel. Research at INRA seeks to explore its potential as a source of biomaterial or second-generation biofuel (ethanol). In the latter case, in addition to its high yield of biomass, research focuses on more specific selection criteria, such as high holocellulose content (cellulose and hemicellulose combined).

Research on miscanthus began at INRA in 2006, with a long-term experiment at Estrées-Mons, near Amiens. Genetic-based studies aim to identify and examine traits that are beneficial when it comes to biomass. This will ultimately lead to the creation of varieties suited to northern Europe, combining productivity and technical and environmental qualities. From an agronomic point of view, a better understanding is needed of how the plant fares in relation to harvesting practices  (planting, nitrogen fertilisation, etc.). In addition, the environmental impact of miscanthus crops on a global scale (energy balance and greenhouse gases) and locally (soil quality, impact on aquifers, etc.) must be assessed.

Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Environment and Agronomy, Plant Biology and Breeding
Associated Centre(s):
Associated Unit(s):
AgroImpact - Agroresources and Environmental Impacts Research Unit, Arable Crops - Innovation - Environment Experimental Unit of Estrées-Mons

Futurol, for second generation ethanol production

The Futurol project aims to produce second-generation ethanol on an industrial scale. INRA has partnered with ten players from industry, finance and R&D, bringing skills and know-how acquired over several years in the biological breakdown of various raw plant materials, including dedicated crops (miscanthus, switchgrass), wood, agricultural by-products (straw, beet pulp) and green waste. This biomass, rich in cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, is broken down by fungal enzymes and converted into ethanol by yeast. INRA also conducts studies on potential resources in terms of production and managing environmental impact, on both a small scale and at regional level. Eleven INRA research units are involved in the project, consisting of some 65 research initiatives, of which about 30 are the subject of doctoral theses. A pilot plant was inaugurated in 2011 at the Pomacle-Bazancourt site, near Reims. A prototype is due in 2015 (scale x 20), and industrial kick-off slated for 2020 (scale x 1,000).