Ethanol from the prairie

Researchers see switchgrass as new source of fuel

September 10, 2007


John Fike, a professor at Virginia Tech, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Scientists haven't perfected the process that turns switchgrass into ethanol, but the prairie plant is expected to be a new source of fuel. Virginia officials are encouraging farmers to grow switchgrass and are envisioning dozens of refineries.

John Fike, a professor at Virginia Tech, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Scientists haven't perfected the process that turns switchgrass into ethanol, but the prairie plant is expected to be a new source of fuel. Virginia officials are encouraging farmers to grow switchgrass and are envisioning dozens of refineries.

Plant well-known part of Kansas landscape

Switchgrass may be relatively obscure in Virginia, but it has plenty of roots here in Douglas County and elsewhere in Kansas.

The native grass is pervasive by sharing space with other prairie grasses, said Bill Wood, agriculture agent for K-State Research & Extension in Douglas County. Bluestem, Indian grass and western wheatgrass all typically grow alongside switchgrass on native prairies, and in fields set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Wood can't recall ever having seen a "pure" switchgrass meadow - not since the late 1970s, anyway, when his summer job included cutting and baling a 20-acre switchgrass meadow near Mankato.

Plenty has changed since then, said Wood, who didn't figure that the tall plants would gain in popularity as a potential source for alternative fuels.

"I didn't think about it back then," Wood said. "We just made hay."

- Mark Fagan / Journal-World Business Editor

— When it grows high and thick in midsummer, the crop that might fill Virginia's gas tanks, revitalize its farm belt and keep its mud and manure out of the Chesapeake Bay looks like : weeds. Like the world's most overgrown lawn.

At a Virginia Tech agricultural research center here, in this small town west of Fredericksburg, the switchgrass plot is an unruly, waving thicket of seven-foot-tall green stalks. But it only looks neglected: This is one of the center's most prized plants, a formerly obscure prairie grass now projected to be a major source of farm-grown fuel.

"That'd be some energy, right there," said Dave Starner, the center's superintendent, holding a freshly cut bundle of it.

Researchers across the country think that switchgrass could help supplant corn as a source for the fast-growing ethanol industry. In Virginia, some officials urging farmers to grow it and envision dozens of refineries that will turn the stalks into fuel.

"It's the future of the rural community and the world as you know it," said Ken Moss, an entrepreneur in south-central Virginia who is using some state funds for a factory that turns switchgrass into a substitute for heating oil.

Benefits of switchgrass

But such efforts have hit a snag: Scientists haven't perfected the process that turns switchgrass into ethanol. So for today, the Crop That Could Change Virginia is just hay with better publicity.

The plant behind all the hoopla, Panicum virgatum, looks a bit like a corn plant without the cob. It has a thin, rigid stalk with a feathery tassel of seeds. Scientists say switchgrass probably grew wild across the eastern two-thirds of the United States for centuries before Europeans arrived.

But, except for plant biologists and some biofuel researchers, few Americans had heard of the plant before last year's State of the Union address. President Bush listed switchgrass among potential sources for ethanol, a gasoline substitute sought as a replacement for imported oil.

Researchers say switchgrass has much to recommend it over corn, the source of almost all U.S. ethanol. For one thing, it isn't also food - the ethanol-driven demand for corn has pushed up prices on a range of food items. For another, switchgrass requires little of the irrigation and fertilizer necessary to grow corn, a prima donna among crops.

Environmentalists have also praised the plant for the ability of its roots to filter out pollutants that often wash off farm fields.

"It's better for the land. It's better for the water," said Josh Dorner, a Sierra Club spokesman. Compared to corn, he said, "it's far and away the way to go."

Virginia has relatively little switchgrass planted - fewer than 20 farmers are thought to be growing it on less than 1,000 acres. But Virginia Tech scientists say the grass could play a major role in creating a massive biofuel economy.

In a recent white paper, they suggested that switchgrass, along with woodchips, could provide a quarter of Virginia's gas, diesel fuel and heating oil needs and support 68 small fuel refineries in the state. Researchers estimated that the new fuel sources could create 10,500 jobs, including for farmers, truck drivers and refinery workers.

One reason for the optimism is obvious at the Virginia Tech research center in Orange. Months of dry weather had stunted the corn, but the switchgrass was still green and tall.

In the southern part of the state, officials are especially eager. They have been ready to embrace a new crop since tobacco, a standby since colonial times, began to fade. And now comes a crop that embraces them: Virginia Tech data show that, because of the state's relatively mild climate, switchgrass might grow much better in Virginia than in Iowa.

Overcoming obstacles

There's just one thing missing from the plans to make Virginia an epicenter of ethanol production. That, unfortunately, is ethanol.

The process of turning plants into fuel is a lot like turning them into liquor, scientists say: Sugars are extracted and fermented, producing alcohol. The problem with switchgrass is that its sugars are locked up chemically and are much harder to extract than those in corn.

Scientists have not found a way to produce solutions with the right concentrations of alcohol from switchgrass, said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

"We can get to a beer, about a 5 percent alcohol solution," Douglas said. "We'd like to be able to get to a wine. We'd like to be able to get to about a 15 percent solution."

Another obstacle, Douglas said, is that the first commercial factory for switchgrass-based ethanol might not arrive for at least five years.

In Virginia, that prospect has left many farmers leery of planting the crop. It can take several years for the stalks to mature, so fields would remain idle while farmers hope for a payoff from a market that doesn't exist.


lounger 10 years, 8 months ago

Good! This is one of many alternatives to nasty, blood thirsty, Earth Destroying, war mongering Oil!!!

JSpizias 10 years, 8 months ago

First, look at the thermodynamics of the system. Before jumping on the switchgrass bandwagon check out the paper by Patzek and Pimentel (Thermodynamics of Energy Production from Biomass).

To quote them (page 75) "To make things worse, what little solar energy is captured by plants goes in tandem with a disproportionate environmental damage and a negative free energy balance. We conclude that governmental and industrial funding for "renewable energy" sources will be spent much more wisely on the development of large-throughput, efficient technologies of manufacturing solar cells...). We want to be very clear: solar cells, wind turbines, and biomass-for-energy plantations can never replace even a small fraction of the highly reliable, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, nuclear, fossil, and hydroelectric power stations. Claims to the contrary are popular but irresponsible. To the extent that we live in a hydrocarbon-limited world, generate too much CO2, and major hydropower opportunities have been exhausted worldwide, new nuclear power stations must be considered".

I think Patzek and Pimentel are absolutely right in their view. As I understand, some European countries currently derive as much as 70% of their electrical power from nuclear power plants. Start with conservation, better more energy efficient homes and autos, and use nuclear plants for generation of electrical power, instead of coal and natural gas. However, realize that we must depend on burning of hydrocarbons for a large fraction of our energy mix for the forseeable future.

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