Switch Grass Can Produce Ethanol

January 8, 2008

Following a five year study of switch grass done by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service along with the University of Nebraska, it has been determined that prairie grasses grown using only moderate amounts of fertilizer on poor land with typically low yield can produce a large amount of ethanol.

Ken Vogel, a U.S. Department of Agriculture geneticist and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor as well as one of the researchers on the project, said that one acre of switch grass on farms in North and South Dakota and Nebraska may produce an average of 300 gallons of ethanol. In the same states, an acre of corn produces approximately 350 gallons of ethanol. Vogel claims that it is slightly unfair to compare the amount of ethanol produced by corn with the amount that could be produced by switch grass, because the method of converting switch grass to fuel is still being studied and sharpened.

Last month, an energy bill was passed by Congress requiring a massive increase in the production of ethanol. By 2022, production should be up to 36 billion gallons a year. The prospects for cellulosic ethanol, a product made from feedstock such as switch grass and wood chips will be emphasized as an important tool for making this happen. By 2015, two-thirds of the nation’s ethanol is supposed to come from non-corn sources, such as these. Grain markets can only produce about 15 billion gallons a year of ethanol without being hurt, therefore these other sources are important for making the renewable fuel that will make this bill a reality.

Steve Sorum, the Nebraska Ethanol Board Projects Manager said that prospects for cellulosic ethanol are exciting the industry because switch grass and other feedstock are much cheaper to grow than corn. On top of that, some of the byproducts created in the process can be used to generate electricity. Voegel’s estimate is that switch grass produces more than five times the amount of energy than the energy that is consumed by growing the crop and converting it to ethanol.

Sorum says that the key to this will be developing an economic way to break down the cell walls of cellulose-based fuel sources. To jump-start ethanol production from these sources, the Department of Energy plans to invest $385 million in six refineries across the country. 

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