Innovative approaches to upscaling miscanthus production
Achieving Net Zero will require a huge increase in the amount of biomass crops grown in the UK, but upscaling these needs innovation and commitment believes Terravesta’s science and technology director Michael Squance.
Biomass crops like miscanthus have the potential to help the UK meet its net zero goal but – according to the Climate Change Committee - some 750,000 hectares are needed if that is to happen. Currently there's just 8,200ha of miscanthus grown in England out of a total 10,200ha of biomass crops.
Michael says reaching this target would mean planting 30,000ha per year from 2030. “That's a significant increase, given it's taken since 2000 to reach 10,000 hectares.”
Miscanthus is a carbon negative crop, he explains. “It has a net carbon saving of about 2.35 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. That's assuming a 14-tonne biomass crop over a 20-year lifespan.”
It is a low input perennial crop that grows on unproductive land with a single cultivation capable of producing more than 20 years of harvests. “We actually don't know how long you can leave a miscanthus plantation,” says Michael. “I know of some that are at least 25 years old and still producing a good amount of biomass.” It can also reduce soil erosion, for example, when planted alongside rivers.
The number of end-uses for miscanthus is growing, he says. Miscanthus markets include renewable power generation, livestock and equine bedding, as well as biomass heat generation. “There are also construction materials. A lot of work is being done in Europe on eco-concrete.
“There is obviously a need for innovation to increase the amount being planted,” he explains. Seed technology is being explored, but miscanthus is mostly planted as a rhizome at the moment. While automated planting of rhizomes could be possible in the future, most of the work underway is supporting crop establishment which is particularly important for a long-term crop.
Through its OMENZ project Terravesta is working with numerous partner organisations to deliver innovations at nursery and field level. OMENZ (Optimising Miscanthus Establishment through mechanisation and data capture to meet Net Zero targets) is looking to find new approaches to improving crop vigour and optimising agronomic practices.
One under investigation is a plant monitoring system created with Ystumtec which has added sensors to existing planting machinery to detect rhizomes being planted and collating associated GPS data. “From the office we can see exactly what is going on, but feedback is also given to the team in the field. In theory we then know where all the plants are so we can obtain accurate information and better understand crop performance. These technologies will be important when we move to automated planting as well.”
Given the height and density of a fully-grown miscanthus crop, monitoring establishment is difficult from the ground but being able to assess crops ‘on a grand scale’ will become increasingly important as acreage increases. The project has therefore been using drones to create high resolution images of fields to gain insight into crop performance. Researchers are developing machine-learning approaches able to identify individual miscanthus plants to give accurate counts and understand the success or otherwise of planting.
“Innovation is a long process, particularly when you’re dealing with a perennial crop that takes three years to reach a mature yield,” concludes Michael. “It is a long road to developing technologies but there is no doubt they will have a massive impact on the Green Revolution and the farming sector.”
More information about miscanthus can be found at www.terravesta.com.