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Published on March 14th, 2008 | by Clayton

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Switchgrass Could Displace 30% of US Petroleum Usage With 94% GHG Reduction


switchgrass, biofuel, ethanol, cellulosic, scienceIn January, USDA researchers completed a five-year evaluation of another biofuel feedstock with the potential to make a serious dent in US petroleum usage. In the largest study to date, switchgrass has been shown to produce 540% more energy than was used to grow, harvest, and process it into cellulosic ethanol, while reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 94% when compared to gasoline.

USDA geneticist Ken Vogel commented that the study demonstrates switchgrass’s potential to be a major renewable biofuel that reduces GHGs and could “potentially displace 30 percent of current U.S. petroleum consumption.”

Key points from the study include:

  • Researchers don’t expect switchgrass to replace corn fields, but see crop development occurring on marginal, highly-erodible lands.
  • Ethanol yields on marginal land averaged 300 gallons per acre (corn-grain ethanol produces 350 gallons per acre).
  • Biomass left over after converting switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol could be used to provide energy for the distilling and biorefinery processes, further adding to the fuel’s net energy balance. Comparatively, corn-grain ethanol typically uses natural gas or other power sources for processing.
  • Experimental switchgrass strains currently undergoing testing could potentially produce 50% higher yields than those found in this study.
  • Six cellulosic ethanol refineries are currently being constructed in the US, with partial funding from the DOE.

For comparison: soybean-based biodiesel offers about a 320% energy return, and grain-based ethanol produces about 125% more energy than it uses. Neither of these have the potential to displace more than a small fraction of US petroleum usage.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and took place in North and South Dakota, and Nebraska.

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GM Announces Biofuel Partnership: Cheap, Green Ethanol?

PNAS: Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass

[via] and Photo Credit: UNL



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About the Author

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.



  • http://lakefiveresort.com Ron Ridenour

    Hemp could do all of what switchgrass can do as well as providing food, oil, all sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if hemp outgrows switchgrass.

  • http://lakefiveresort.com Ron Ridenour

    Hemp could do all of what switchgrass can do as well as providing food, oil, all sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if hemp outgrows switchgrass.

  • http://sirjorge.com/blogx sir jorge

    switching the u.s wouldn’t be solved by utilizing this type of energy.

  • http://sirjorge.com/blogx sir jorge

    switching the u.s wouldn’t be solved by utilizing this type of energy.

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    Awesome, concise case for a great idea. Now to see if will be allowed room at the US table. Here’s hoping!

  • http://www.greensmithconsulting.com Paul Smith

    Awesome, concise case for a great idea. Now to see if will be allowed room at the US table. Here’s hoping!

  • vlad0707

    - would this be a regional dependency, or a national one?

    – will the switchgrass be genetically modified and/or sprayed with pesticides?

    – what will monocropping this, just like corn, do to the long-term viability of the land?

    – does monsanto have a patent on this yet?

  • vlad0707

    - would this be a regional dependency, or a national one?

    – will the switchgrass be genetically modified and/or sprayed with pesticides?

    – what will monocropping this, just like corn, do to the long-term viability of the land?

    – does monsanto have a patent on this yet?

  • Patrick

    Solar everywhere + Electric Cars is the best answer.

    10×10 square miles of solar can power the entire US year round:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

    NO BIOFULES ARE WORTH IT – http://gas2.org/2008/03/05/university-funding-pulled-for-anti-biofuel-research/

  • Patrick

    Solar everywhere + Electric Cars is the best answer.

    10×10 square miles of solar can power the entire US year round:

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

    NO BIOFULES ARE WORTH IT – http://gas2.org/2008/03/05/university-funding-pulled-for-anti-biofuel-research/

  • Elbow

    I wonder is it would be possible to use grass clippings. Millions of Americans mow their lawns in the summer. It could be done without the need for new farm land or taking way from agriculture. Maybe they’ll even come and mow my lawn for me!

  • Elbow

    I wonder is it would be possible to use grass clippings. Millions of Americans mow their lawns in the summer. It could be done without the need for new farm land or taking way from agriculture. Maybe they’ll even come and mow my lawn for me!

  • lodown

    I’d love to see a ethanol comparison between switchgrass, sorghum, sudan grass, and tropical maize.

  • lodown

    I’d love to see a ethanol comparison between switchgrass, sorghum, sudan grass, and tropical maize.

  • Brent Jones

    Non-food-crop based ethanol is the only way to go. Hope these methods work and make money for investors. We must reduce dependance on oil.

  • Brent Jones

    Non-food-crop based ethanol is the only way to go. Hope these methods work and make money for investors. We must reduce dependance on oil.

  • Jared

    It’s a rosy picture, but keep in mind it is only a picture: not one drop of ethanol was actually produced in this study. Ken Vogel’s research was limited to the study of source material (ie., switchgrass)–the new data is a careful measure of how much energy (fossil fuel inputs) are realistically required for a continuous switchgrass crop. How much ethanol that crop might produce is theoretical, derived by a formula developed by U.C. Berkley http://rael.berkeley.edu/EBAMM/, which is based primarily on established corn ethanol procedures; that model “assumes that production of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass becomes economic as represented in one of the studies.” (meaning it is not yet reality) Vogel himself also notes: “However, caution should be used in making direct ethanol yield comparisons with cellulosic sources and corn grains because corn grain conversion technology is mature, whereas cellulosic conversion efficiency technology is based on an estimated value.” Vogel’s crop was merely weighed–it is new data on source material production, but premature conclusions on ultimate utility: there is no proof (that I could find in the study’s bibliography or elsewhere on the web) that the cellulosic process is actually economical. It’s like studying a new crop for use as rabbit food, while ignoring the fact that rabbits won’t actually eat it.

  • Jared

    It’s a rosy picture, but keep in mind it is only a picture: not one drop of ethanol was actually produced in this study. Ken Vogel’s research was limited to the study of source material (ie., switchgrass)–the new data is a careful measure of how much energy (fossil fuel inputs) are realistically required for a continuous switchgrass crop. How much ethanol that crop might produce is theoretical, derived by a formula developed by U.C. Berkley http://rael.berkeley.edu/EBAMM/, which is based primarily on established corn ethanol procedures; that model “assumes that production of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass becomes economic as represented in one of the studies.” (meaning it is not yet reality) Vogel himself also notes: “However, caution should be used in making direct ethanol yield comparisons with cellulosic sources and corn grains because corn grain conversion technology is mature, whereas cellulosic conversion efficiency technology is based on an estimated value.” Vogel’s crop was merely weighed–it is new data on source material production, but premature conclusions on ultimate utility: there is no proof (that I could find in the study’s bibliography or elsewhere on the web) that the cellulosic process is actually economical. It’s like studying a new crop for use as rabbit food, while ignoring the fact that rabbits won’t actually eat it.

  • http://MaxTheITpro.BlogSpot.com MaxTheITpro

    Ron wrote:

    “Hemp could do all of what switchgrass can do as well as providing food, oil, all sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if hemp outgrows switchgrass.”

    ===

    I’m all for hemp too. Are there any substantial studies that highlight hemp’s prowess in biodiesel/biomass applications? I keep hearing about it, but are there any tests or studies that clearly state this?

  • http://MaxTheITpro.BlogSpot.com MaxTheITpro

    Ron wrote:

    “Hemp could do all of what switchgrass can do as well as providing food, oil, all sorts of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if hemp outgrows switchgrass.”

    ===

    I’m all for hemp too. Are there any substantial studies that highlight hemp’s prowess in biodiesel/biomass applications? I keep hearing about it, but are there any tests or studies that clearly state this?

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  • Kabirji
  • Kabirji
  • Kabirji

    According to the Department of Energy, hemp as a biomass fuel producer requires the least specialized growing and processing procedures of all hemp products. The hydrocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources, from fuel pellets to liquid fuels and gas. Development of bio-fuels could significantly reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

  • Kabirji

    According to the Department of Energy, hemp as a biomass fuel producer requires the least specialized growing and processing procedures of all hemp products. The hydrocarbons in hemp can be processed into a wide range of biomass energy sources, from fuel pellets to liquid fuels and gas. Development of bio-fuels could significantly reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

  • John Verez

    Unless Big Government BUTTS OUT and removes the ban on hemp, America will continue to SUFFER SEVERELY in its dependence on fossil fuels ! I suggest you grab hold of your politicians and make it clear to them that there needs to be alternative biofuels to corn such as switchgrass and even hemp. And let’s try utilizing solar, wind, and nuclear (provided we throw out the warmongering pols) technology for electricity and leave the coal alone.

  • John Verez

    Unless Big Government BUTTS OUT and removes the ban on hemp, America will continue to SUFFER SEVERELY in its dependence on fossil fuels ! I suggest you grab hold of your politicians and make it clear to them that there needs to be alternative biofuels to corn such as switchgrass and even hemp. And let’s try utilizing solar, wind, and nuclear (provided we throw out the warmongering pols) technology for electricity and leave the coal alone.

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