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Fifty million buffalo were right: will we switch to switchgrass?

It's natural, it's all-American, it's a native that was here before any humans arrived, and it's green in many ways. It's switchgrass.
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Written by Harry Fuller on

It's natural, it's all-American, it's a native that was here before any humans arrived, and it's green in many ways. It's switchgrass. We've blogged about this prairie grass that once stood taller than the settlers and their covered wagons. It once nourished millions of American bison. It once covered the Great Plains for miles upon end. And it may be staging a comeback.

A five-year federal study found that switchgrass can produce 540% more energy than it takes to farm it. Wow, that's very different from the heavily subsidized and fertilized corn crop now being used to produce ethanol biofuel. Corn produces only about 25% more energy and even soy-based biodiesel is less than 100% more energy productive. Switchgrass could also be used to produce ethanol. That would reduce greenhosue emissions compared to current gasoline.

Yet there's significant work to be done on the processing process because switchgrass does not produce sugar but cellulose and lignin which must be converted. That'll take energy. NREL is currently researching better processing processes.

One huge plus for switchgrass: it only needs to be planted once, not annually. It's extensive underground root system can be almost immortal. Those roots might prove to be a useful carbon sink. Other findings: switchgrass does better with greater rainfall but none of the test farms were irrigated. Also switchgrass could be grown on marginal farmland not suited to high value crops like corn and soybeans. Hey, we could even grown it on the roof of every Wal-mart in creation!

The new U.S. Energy Law does call for more alternative fuel use, and it's not likely to all come from corn. Meanwhile, even in the Corn Belt there's interest. Imagine not even having to plow your fields every year or two? Though there's certainly no lobby for switchgrass as there is for corn and ethanol...yet.

There has been some evidence of corporate interest. A press release last September from Archer Daniels and Conoco said they would work together on biofuel and switchgrass was specifically mentioned. Vinod Khosla is among VCs who think biofuels are not only an idea but an investment. Here's his website. Yet the controversy will not go away until somebody is turning a profit by selling switchgrass fuel commercially. Too bad the government doesn't feel moved to pay for a switchgrass pilot plant like they're doing for the needy folks in the coal industry.

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