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Miscanthus Biomass in Modern Production

The Role of Miscanthus Biomass in Modern Production

About Miscanthus
Miscanthus is a low-maintenance crop. Once established, it can be harvested annually for over 20 years. As it doesn’t need much fertiliser or pesticide, it has little environmental impact and is suitable for challenging land.
“Dedicating a field to a crop like miscanthus takes a mindset shift for farmers. But it offers environmental benefits, such as erosion protection, control of nitrate leaching, maintenance of biodiversity habitats and soil carbon sequestration," says Andreas Kiesel, the EU-funded GRACE project coordinator.
Miscanthus is currently mainly used as a solid fuel for combustion, animal bedding, and garden mulch. But it could also be used in higher-value applications – including platform chemicals, building materials, and natural fibre-reinforced composites.

MISCANTHUS – CONCRETE

Concrete, the second most utilized material globally following water, poses environmental challenges due to substantial CO2 emissions during its production. In light of the current discourse on nitrogen, there is a compelling need to explore sustainable approaches to circular concrete production. A multitude of entities are diligently engaged in pioneering innovations to mitigate CO2 emissions throughout the concrete supply chain.

A noteworthy solution involves incorporating Miscanthus into concrete. Functioning as a lightweight filler and gravel substitute, Miscanthus significantly reduces the concrete's weight, offering substantial benefits in terms of foundations, installation, and transportation. This results in cost and energy savings and addresses environmental concerns. Miscanthus concrete exhibits commendable characteristics, such as high sound absorption, durability, and minimal maintenance requirements. Its applications span various constructs, including noise barriers, street furniture, and cycle paths.

Beyond its structural advantages, Miscanthus fibre is particularly intriguing due to its status as a renewable raw material, ensuring a perpetual supply. Furthermore, the harvest of Miscanthus allows for complete resource recovery, eliminating waste. Notably, Miscanthus concrete is fully recyclable, contributing to a more sustainable and circular construction ecosystem.

MISCANTHUS – PLASTIC

Plastic, like concrete, stands as a ubiquitous material globally, fundamentally altering our lifestyles since its inception around 1900. This groundbreaking substance boasts exceptional versatility and cost-effectiveness in production. However, a notable drawback arises from its non-degradable nature, leading to the persistent accumulation of plastic waste and well-documented detrimental environmental consequences.

The incorporation of Miscanthus in the production of bioplastic presents two pivotal advantages: firstly, the elimination of the need for oil in bioplastic manufacturing, and secondly, the inherent biodegradability and compostability of the resulting material.

Bioplastic, derived from Miscanthus, has found application in many consumer goods, including cups, plates, planters, and clothes hangers. Moreover, it serves as a commendable alternative in the realm of food packaging materials. This innovative approach mitigates the dependence on non-renewable resources and addresses the critical issue of plastic persistence in the environment.

MISCANTHUS – MULCH

Miscanthus emerges as an excellent choice for ground cover in ornamental, public, or vegetable gardens, offering a natural solution to impede weed proliferation and enhance soil moisture retention around plants and shrubs. This application proves particularly advantageous as it significantly curtails the loss of bedding. Notably, post-harvest, Miscanthus requires no additional processing to serve as an effective mulch layer.

The Miscanthus mulch layer performs a dual role by thwarting substantial weed growth in newly planted areas and contributing to soil improvement. Abundant in fibre, it does not adversely impact soil conditions, specifically pH levels. Moreover, the active engagement of soil life with the Miscanthus mulch layer fosters a healthier environment, resulting in fewer instances of plant ailments. The inherent properties of Miscanthus, including its resistance to parasitic fungi growth, contribute to the overall well-being of plants in the designated areas.

MISCANTHUS – PAPER

The paper industry, responsible for around 7 percent of global CO2 emissions annually, surpasses aviation in carbon dioxide output. Over half of the paper produced serves packaging purposes, while about one-third is allocated for books, magazines, newspapers, and various other applications, including toilet paper.

Wood fibers, a pivotal raw material for paper production, originate from trees that can be sustainably replanted, rendering them an essentially limitless resource. However, the drawback lies in the substantial energy and water requirements associated with paper manufacturing from trees.

A promising alternative lies in utilising Miscanthus fibers, presenting a viable means of supplementing traditional wood pulp. By incorporating Miscanthus fibers, saving up to approximately a quarter of the wood pulp traditionally employed in the paper-making process becomes feasible. This addresses the environmental impact of paper production and contributes to resource conservation.

MISCANTHUS – BIOETHANOL & PEF

For instance, second-generation Miscanthus biomass, classified as lignocellulosic non-food biomass in contrast to first-generation biomass derived from edible starch/sugar crops like corn and cereals, serves as a valuable source for bioethanol production.
“Combining with sequestered fermentation off-gases in expired oil wells, this bioethanol production overcompensated for the greenhouse gas emissions created during the process. The resultant carbon-negative biofuel could be useful for transport applications such as aviation,” explains Kiesel from the University of Hohenheim.
The University of Hohenheim team also successfully demonstrated the production of the platform chemical HMF from miscanthus biomass at the pilot plant level.
HMF can be used to produce PEF, a bio-based polymer which can replace fossil-based PET. Butanediol and azelaic acid were used to produce bio-based polymers which are biodegradable in soil, making them highly relevant for agriculture to overcome recycling limitations and to avoid microplastic pollution. Mulch films and planting pots were created as a proof of concept and are currently being commercialised.
“We also used HMF to produce a formaldehyde-free resin, which we tested as a binder for miscanthus panels. This application hadn’t been foreseen and could only be implemented due to the bankruptcy of a former project partner. So, we turned a crisis into an opportunity,” adds Kiesel.
Additionally, two novel miscanthus fibre-reinforced composites were developed for the automotive sector. “Later this year, the first car model will feature miscanthus-fibre composite dashboard elements, which is a great achievement!” notes Kiesel.

CONCLUSION

The utilisation of Miscanthus biomass showcases a multifaceted and promising avenue for sustainable solutions across diverse industries. The versatility of Miscanthus is evident in its role as a valuable resource for bioethanol production, offering a carbon-negative biofuel option that compensates for greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the production of platform chemicals like HMF from Miscanthus demonstrates its potential as a precursor for bio-based polymers, addressing the need to replace fossil-based materials.

The innovative applications extend to agriculture, where biodegradable bio-based polymers derived from Miscanthus find utility in mulch films and planting pots, mitigating recycling challenges and reducing the risk of microplastic pollution. Furthermore, the unexpected development of a formaldehyde-free resin for Miscanthus panels exemplifies the adaptability of this biomass in responding to emerging needs, turning challenges into opportunities.

The automotive sector's adoption of novel Miscanthus fibre-reinforced composites, culminating in the introduction of dashboard elements in upcoming car models, underscores the material's potential to contribute to sustainable practices in manufacturing.

Overall, Miscanthus biomass emerges as a renewable and versatile resource, offering environmentally friendly energy, materials, and agriculture alternatives. As industries seek to minimise their environmental footprint, the diverse applications of Miscanthus present a compelling case for its integration into mainstream practices, contributing to a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.
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