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Switchgrass Sprouts As Biofuel Replacement

June 19, 2008

By Jim Stafford, The Oklahoman

Jun. 19–SAN DIEGO — When Steve Rhines of the Noble Foundation searched for biofuel displays among the maze of exhibition booths at the BIO 2008 convention here Wednesday, he didn’t find corn.

He found switchgrass, instead.

The find seemed to confirm the words of the San Diego Union-Tribune, which declared in a Page 1 story earlier this week that ethanol from corn was “yesterday’s news.”

A second generation of biofuels created from the likes of switchgrass is emerging as a key ethanol source for the future, the newspaper said.

And the Ardmore-based Noble Foundation has invested its scientific research heavily in developing a type of switchgrass that can be grown easily, cultivated and converted into ethanol. The foundation recently planted a 1,000-acre test plot in the Panhandle and has another 114 acres planted near Maysville.

Why switch plants? The pursuit of the ideal plant to create what is known as “cellulosic” ethanol is driven in part by the need to preserve diminishing acres of farmland to grow crops for food instead of fuel, Rhines said.

“It’s going to be critical that we learn how to use our land more efficiently, in particular with ethanol; how do we get more ethanol per acre and how do we use this diminishing resource,” he said. “Those are the challenges I see ahead of us.”

Rhines found a display of switchgrass on the exhibition floor, but the live corn plants showcased by Monsanto Corp. on the exhibition floor in Chicago two years ago were nowhere to be found at this year’s BIO show.

Debate may be non-issue The corn vs. switchgrass debate may be a non-issue because they are grown on vastly different soils, he said.

“It’s going to be dictated by the ground,” Rhines said. “Where the ground will support annuals (such as corn), typically farmers would stay with the annuals. That ground that is more conducive to a perennial (such as switchgrass), maybe it’s marginal cropland or less productive, you are going to see crops like switchgrass.

“Even the Department of Energy says you are not going to replace a lot of food bearing ground for dedicated energy crops because food is always going to drive the economics.”

In a “state-of-the-industry” report to about 1,500 participants at the BIO show before the exhibition hall opened Wednesday morning, industry analyst Steve Burrill described the key role that agriculture and biofuels play in the biotechnology sector.

“Ag bio is with us and is being very, very successful,” Burrill said. “In the last year you couldn’t have read a newspaper anywhere in the world without being aware that biofuels are transforming the nature of the fossil fuel world.”

How industry has been shaken The biofuels industry has undergone a “little bit of a shakeout” because the cost of production and fuel needed to produce it has driven investment away from corn-based ethanol, Burrill said.

“We see not only large amounts of ethanol, but cellulosic (switchgrass) biofuels becoming the real future,” Burrill said. “We are very concerned today about exploiting the food crops for fuel, and there is a backlash going on because of that. We need to be engaged in dialogue that we are not part of the problem in the food crisis but part of the solution.”

The world food crisis and the thirst for fuel have placed a big burden on agricultural researchers, Rhines said. “If you look at the challenges facing the world today, we see even more and more importance of agricultural research,” he said.

“You see challenges with regard to utilizing less and less land in a more productive manner. So that’s probably going to fall down to the challenges of biotechnology.”

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