Switchgrass, Corn, Mustard? Where’s my next tank of gas coming from?

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 12:39 PM

In the ever expanding need to diminish greenhouse gas emissions, the best alternative to coal and petroleum seems to change with the ocean’s tides. What is the best alternative? Solar, wind, biofuel, hydrogen, ocean tides? Scientists are working on a seemingly unending supply of different plants and plant materials in order to come up with inexpensive and viable alternatives to the petroleum based fuels that help to proliferate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In preparing for this posting, I have found some interesting research being conducted in the arena of switchgrass, a perennial native to the U.S. heartland, that has left me with more questions than answers as to how we might be able to find alternative fuels which would not only control GHG’s, but also help to reduce them by simply growing the plants. This posting will show how ethanol and electricity produced by swithchgrass may very well lead us to the green revolution that we all seek.

The other evening I was watching a program on television on fuel alternatives. It was probably either Discovery Channel or History Channel or something along those lines, but that’s beside the point. One thing that caught my eye during this program was an alternative to corn based ethanol and the research currently being conducted to test the viability of the product. Switchgrass, a perennial native to the U.S. was once a plant so abundant that it spread from one coast to the other. As the nation grew west and the mid-west evolved from a vast savannah to the nation’s bread basket, switchgrass became a hardy invader to be destroyed. However today, the hardy plant which grows even on marginal land in abundance is being studied as an alternative not only to petroleum based fuels, but to corn ethanol fuel as well.

Because all plant material is largely composed of cellulose (which is in turn composed of long-chain complex sugars), scientists are conducting methods that would be able to efficiently break down cellulose into simple sugars that can then be fermented and turned into ethanol to fuel our cars and generate electricity as well. This process is called cellulosic fermentation and, while today remains a highly expensive alternative to corn base ethanol production, it is becoming less expensive every day as newer extraction methods are being developed.

So what does this mean for all those who wish for alternative fuel to power our lives? According to research done by M.R. Schmer, K.P. Vogel, R.B. Mitchell and R.K. Perrin for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, switchgrass has the potential to create 540% more renewable than non-renewable energy through carbon sequestration, and can help to reduce GHG’s by upwards of 85%, while corn based ethanol essentially does not help reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all simply because of the fuel used in the production process which offsets any environmental benefits from converting corn to ethanol. Switchgrass poses not nearly as much of this problem, and in fact the by-products of the cellulosic fermentation process can be used to generate electricity, further offsetting GHG’s.

So why doesn’t the government help finance research into switchgrass production as a fuel alternative? Actually it is, to the tune of over $300 million. There are several companies, both here and abroad, dedicated to the purpose of refining the process of cellulosic fermentation not just in switchgrass, but other cellulose based products as well, such as rice hay and forestry biomass. What remains is for the general public to become more aware of this fuel alternative and to send letters to their elected officials demanding that more research be conducted. The scientists have done the research and have concluded that the process of cellulosic fermentation may very well be the best shot we have at offsetting greenhouse gas emissions without limiting our reliance on automotive transportation. It’s up to all of us to take heed.

Posted by Charles Wilcox

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