Good news about switchgrass

(Photo credit: “meadow4.jpg“, Flickr/Doctor Swan.)

Switchgrass is a major source of cellulosic ethanol, which has much greater theoretical potential as a biofuel replacement for gasoline than corn-based ethanol, which is a subsidy scheme for politicians to drum up votes in farm country.

The trick is that while a lot of people are working on it, nobody’s come up with a commercializable system for turning switchgrass and other high-cellulose plants into a (relatively) clean, pumpable liquid fuel you could run a car on.

Here’s a step in the right direction, though:

Previous studies on switchgrass plots suggested that ethanol made from the plant would yield anywhere from 343% to 700% of the energy put into growing the crop and processing it into biofuel. But these studies were based on lab-scale plots of about 5 square meters. So 6 years ago, Kenneth Vogel, a geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Lincoln, Nebraska, and colleagues set out to enlist farmers for a much larger evaluation. Farmers planted switchgrass on 10 farms, each of which was between 3 and 9 hectares. They then tracked the inputs they used–diesel for farm equipment and transporting the harvested grasses, for example–as well as the amount of grass they raised over a 5-year period. After crunching the numbers, Vogel and his colleagues found that ethanol produced from switchgrass yields 540% of the energy used to grow, harvest, and process it into ethanol. Equally important, the researchers found that the switchgrass is carbon neutral, as it absorbs essentially the same amount of greenhouse gases while it’s growing as it emits when burned as fuel.

Still just a sandbox example, but a good one.


One response to “Good news about switchgrass

  1. Dennis Apedaile

    This comment is not really about this article. It is a generic comment intended to help the person in the street to have a better understganding of what energy use is about and how, by better awareness, he/she/they can likely reduce their energy needs, or alter the sources for their energy use to more efficient sources that are less demanding on our planet.
    Why don’t you develop a simple energy use inventory form that everyone can complete and that includes both a range and the centre of the curve of use among a simple set of say a dozen different living categories — eg: school child,
    farmer, city office worker, factory worker, politician(!), municipal worker, academic, etc.
    Apart from the virtues mentioned above, such an inventory could encourage people to compete with their pals or themselves to do better.
    Radio stations could run contests, newspapers could report on some societal measurement for their community on a daily basis like the stock market.
    Over time, this could become another basic way that people size each other up — “Oh she’s a 320, but should be a 280, etc.”
    Since you’re a Libertarian and I am almost one, I obviously don’t see this as some kind of socialist big brother thing.
    What bothers me is that most of the big topics of our time are both poorly explained and not easy to find out about through individual initiative.
    So, busy people stay in the dark.
    Can you name ten people who have a reasonable understanding of either the Alberta Royalty scheme revisions or, less parochially, the Afghan Mission or how messing up river banks is bad for ongoing fresh water supplies?

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