Georgia company to sell exclusively licensed miscanthus rhizomes

By Lisa Gibson
Posted December 3, 2009, at 12:10 p.m. CST

Georgia-based SunBelt Biofuels LLC is prepared to sell registered and certified rhizomes of its Foundation Freedom giant miscanthus to several hundred licensed growers in the Southeast U.S. starting in the spring.

The plant was selected as the company's main biofuels crop after about 12 years of investigations by Mississippi State University researchers and named Freedom because they believe it can reduce the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil. It was chosen because of its ability to grow well in the Southeast and its vigor, size, profitability and yield, according to Craig Patterson, of SunBelt. "It's important to know that it is not genetically modified," he said. "It was selected." Researchers are in the process of finger printing and patenting the crop, he added.

SunBelt has field trials of Freedom giant miscanthus in Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia, for a total of 300 acres, and is the exclusive supplier of the plant. At full maturity, it yields up to 25 tons per acre. "Because of the high vigor and rapid multiplication of the plant rhizomes, we are able to harvest each year with high multiplication," said Phillip Jennings, president of SunBelt. Yield on one-year-old material is 8 tons, second-year regrowth yields 14 tons and third-year regrowth yield is 20 tons, Jennings said. Some tests have revealed 27 tons per year is possible with some supplemental water after the fourth year of growth, he added. The company possesses enough material now to plant at least 1,000 acres, Patterson said. "Our work for the last few months has been concentrated on bringing the cost down for planting and doing it mechanically," Jennings said.

This is SunBelt's first biofuel crop and the company does not have plans for expansion to include more, Patterson said. "We think this is the best solution for farmers to plant in the Southeast," he said. While it is mainly a biofuel crop, it can be used for biomass power, animal bedding or can be pelletized and shipped. "We can ship it to wherever, whenever," he said. Another giant miscanthus brand came from the University of Illinois, he said. "This is completely different."

An advantage to using grasses rather than woody biomass is moisture content, Patterson said. Freedom giant miscanthus has a moisture content of 12 percent to 15 percent, whereas wood has about 60 percent. Drying that material is energy-intensive and costly. SunBelt has not used money from the government or large corporations, Jennings said, adding that it is a true grass-roots effort, from the ground up, among farmers.

SunBelt offers a full growers assistance program including planting supervision, growing assistance and quality monitoring. Jennings says he'd like to see 25 million acres planted in low-grade soils and on abandoned farms in the Southeast over the next 10 years. "I want so much biomass produced in the southeast that it looks like a mushroom cloud from outer space," he said.