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Switchgrass is the perennial herbaceous prairiegrass Panicum virgatum native to the Great Plains of North America. It is considered a prime candidate for a cellulosic ethanol or other bioenergy feedstock in North America, as it has a very high biomass yield per acre with low-inputs and fertilizers.
- Biofuel Research Suffers From Gaps, 20 January 2012 by Chemical & Engineering News: "After a review of a decade’s worth of biofuels research, scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency have concluded that significant knowledge gaps will likely prevent experts from adequately assessing biofuels’ full environmental impacts....While researchers have paid substantial attention to greenhouse gas emissions, the new study says, they have focused little on how the production and use of biofuels affects biodiversity and human health."
- "'The last 10 years or so of research may have left us short of understanding what biofuels really may do to global economies, the environment, and society,' says Caroline Ridley, an ecologist with the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment, in Arlington, Va., who led the study."
- "The team found that the most common topics, with a few hundred papers each, were fuel production, feedstock production, and greenhouse gas emissions. Near the bottom of the list, 80 studies examined how biofuel production affects biodiversity, for example how local species fare after farmers clear large stretches of land to grow corn, switchgrass, palm oil, or other biofuel feedstocks. And only 15 studied the human health impacts of increasing levels of air pollutants produced by burning biofuel ethanol."
- Access the study, Biofuels: Network Analysis of the Literature Reveals Key Environmental and Economic Unknowns
- Computer model optimizes biofuel operations 17 January 2012 by R&D: “Research into biofuel crops such as switchgrass and Miscanthus has focused mainly on how to grow these crops and convert them into fuels. But many steps lead from the farm to the biorefinery, and each could help or hinder the growth of this new industry.”
- “A new computer model developed at the University of Illinois can simplify this transition, researchers say. The model can run millions of simulations, optimizing operations to bring down costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or achieve other goals.”
- The model, named BioFeed, was developed by “agricultural and biological engineering professor and department head K.C. Ting…with Energy Biosciences Institute research professor Yogendra Shastri and agricultural and biological engineering professors Alan Hansen and Luis Rodriguez.”
- "The model took into account regional attributes such as weather, crop yield, farm size, and transport distances, Shastri said. The model can optimize more than 300,000 variables, he said, including harvest schedules, equipment selection, storage sizing, transport distances, and the logistics of moving the biomass from place to place.”
- “BioFeed allows policymakers, growers, investors, biorefinery owners, researchers, and other interested parties to learn from simulations without having to actually build the system first, the researchers said. ‘There are so many factors to consider, so many ways to operate, so many scenarios, so many potential policy changes,’ Ting said. ‘That's why the optimization tool itself is so important.’” 
- DOE Researchers Achieve Important Genetic Breakthroughs to Help Develop Cheaper Biofuels, 22 December 2011 by Energy.gov: "Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) announced today a major breakthrough in engineering systems of RNA molecules through computer-assisted design, which could lead to important improvements across a range of industries, including the development of cheaper advanced biofuels."
- "This will enable scientists to develop new strains of Escherichia coli (E. coli) that are better able to digest switchgrass biomass and convert released sugars to form three types of transportation fuels – gasoline, diesel and jet fuels."
- "While the work at JBEI remains focused on the development of advanced biofuels, JBEI’s researchers believe that their concepts may help other researchers to develop many other desired products, including biodegradable plastics and therapeutic drugs."
- Biofuel push a bust, report hints, 5 October 2011 by John Roach for MSNBC: "Unless a major technological breakthrough occurs in the next few years, a U.S. government push to put 16 billions of gallons of cellulosic biofuel into gas tanks annually by 2022 will be a bust, hints a new report."
- "The push comes from the congressionally mandated Renewable Fuel Standard. Of the mandated total of 36 billion gallons from a mix of biofuels, the corn-derived ethanol target of 15 billion gallons is doable, the report says."
- "But a big part of the standard — 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels from non-edible plant material such as cornstalks and switchgrass — is unlikely to be met, Wallace Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, told me Tuesday."
- "'The technologies are just not advanced enough to be commercial, they are not cheap enough yet to be commercial, and we are going to have to invest more in R&D if we want to accelerate the pace,' he said."
- "'Here we are in 2011 and we have 11 years to get to 2022 and build 16 billion gallons with a technology that's costlier and riskier, a feedstock that's costlier, and it is just not likely to happen,' he said."
- U.S. gives $136 million for advanced biofuels research, 28 September 2011 by Reuters: "U.S. university researchers will get $136 million to develop advanced biofuels, including to develop jet fuel, by using tall grasses, woody plants and energy cane, the U.S. government said on Wednesday."
- "Nearly two-thirds of the money will go toward aviation biofuels projects in the Pacific Northwest, including efforts to develop a regional source of bio-jet fuel for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport."
- "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who announced the awards in Seattle, said the project will help promote growth in rural America."
- "The projects would focus on using woody crops to produce bio-gasoline and renewable aviation fuel, convert idle sawmills into bioenergy development centers and develop new feedstocks and techniques for sustainable forest production to create a regional source of renewable aviation fuel, and use switchgrass and woody biomass to produce low-cost sugars for conversion to butanol as well as use forest and mill residues and dedicated energy crops to produce biodiesel fuel, heat and power."
- Testing the Water for Bioenergy Crops, 31 August 2011 by the U.S. News : "Energy researchers and environmental advocates are excited about the prospect of gaining more efficient large-scale biofuel production by using large grasses like miscanthus or switchgrass rather than corn."
- "They have investigated yields, land use, economics and more, but one key factor of agriculture has been overlooked: water."
- "Miscanthus and switchgrass have a very different above-ground foliage structure from corn—more surface area and much denser growth."
- "This is good for maximizing the amount of biomass that an acre of land can produce, said Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer and atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but it also increases water use."
- "The result of large-scale adoption would be a reduction in soil moisture and runoff, but an increase in atmospheric humidity."
- "In the U.S. Midwest, rainfall should remain sufficient to meet water demand, according to Kumar. However, areas that rely on irrigation could find they have less water to meet higher demands, which could increase the net cost of large-scale land conversion and put pressure on already stressed water resources."
- Switch from Corn to Grass Would Raise Ethanol Output, Cut Emissions, 12 July 2011 by ScienceDaily: "Growing perennial grasses on the least productive farmland now used for corn ethanol production in the U.S. would result in higher overall corn yields, more ethanol output per acre and better groundwater quality, researchers report in a new study."
- "The study used a computer model of plant growth and soil chemistry to compare the ecological effects of growing corn (Zea mays L.); miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), a sterile hybrid grass used in bioenergy production in Western Europe; and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), which is native to the U.S."
- "The analysis found that switching 30 percent of the least productive corn acres to miscanthus offered the most ecological advantages."
- "'If cellulosic feedstocks (such as miscanthus) were planted on cropland that is currently used for ethanol production in the U.S., we could achieve more ethanol (plus 82 percent) and grain for food (plus 4 percent), while reducing nitrogen leaching (minus 15 to 22 percent) and greenhouse gas emissions (minus 29 percent to 473 percent),' the researchers wrote in their report, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment."
- "Several hurdles remain before the transition from corn to cellulosic ethanol production can occur on a commercial scale, the researchers said. Converting the sugars in corn to ethanol is easier than releasing the energy locked in plant stems and leaves."
- USDA Announces Project to Encourage Development of Next-Generation Biofuels, 5 May 2011 press release by USDA Farm Service: "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today the establishment of the first Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) Project Area to promote the production of dedicated feedstocks for bioenergy. This project will help spur the development of next-generation biofuels and is part of Obama Administration efforts to protect Americans from rising gas prices by breaking the nation’s dependence on foreign oil."
- "Comprising 39 contiguous counties in Missouri and Kansas, the first BCAP Project Area proposes the enrollment of up to 50,000 acres for establishing a dedicated energy crop of native grasses and herbaceous plants (forbs) for energy purposes. Producers in the area will plant mixes of perennial native plants, such as switchgrass, for the manufacture of biomass pellet fuels and other biomass products to be used for power and heat generation. The proposed crops also will provide long term resource conserving vegetative cover. The project is a joint effort between the agriculture producers of Show Me Energy Cooperative of Centerview, Mo., and USDA to spur the expansion of domestically produced biomass feedstocks in rural America for renewable energy."
- Finding Homes for Biofuels Alongside the Beaten Path, 15 March 2011 by DomesticFuel.com: "While biofuels development and production have been a bit different, some of the latest efforts to find room to grow non-food feedstocks for biofuels are being found alongside the beaten path."
- "we’re talking about using areas, such as ditches and medians along the nation’s highways, as good spots to grow the raw materials to keep the cars and trucks running on those highways."
- "The USDA is looking at switch grass and three different oilseeds crops, chosen also for safety factors, such as wildlife mitigation and sight hazards."
- "It’s estimated that there’s 10 million acres of available land just alongside our roads that have good potential for growing biofuel feedstocks."
- Bioenergy crops could lower surface temperatures, 11 March 2011 by R&D Magazine: "Converting large swaths of farmland to perennial grasses for biofuels could lower regional surface temperatures, according to a recent Stanford [University] study."
- "The study, published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), comes on the heels of federal initiatives to wean the United States off fossil fuels by mandating significant increases in ethanol production. The Department of Agriculture forecasts that by 2018, more than one-third of the country's corn harvest will be used to produce ethanol."
- "But concerns about the impact of corn ethanol on food prices, deforestation, and global warming have raised interest in the cultivation of perennial grasses—such as switchgrass—as alternative sources of biofuel."
- "'We've shown that planting perennial bioenergy crops can lower surface temperatures by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit locally, averaged over the entire growing season,' said study co-author David Lobell, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and a center fellow at Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment."
- "In the study, Lobell and his colleagues used a computer simulation to forecast the climatic effects of converting farmland in the Midwest from annual crops—like corn and soybeans—to perennial grasses. The results showed that large-scale perennial cultivation in the 12-state area would pump significantly more water from the soil to the atmosphere, producing enough water vapor to cool the local surface temperature by 1.8 F."
- Cows' guts yield clues for new biofuels, 28 January 2011 by One India News: "A new study has found dozens of previously unknown microbial enzymes in the bovine rumen -- the cow's primary grass-digestion chamber -- that contribute to the breakdown of switchgrass, a renewable biofuel energy source."
- "After incubating the switchgrass in the rumen for 72 hours, researchers conducted a genomic analysis of all of the microbes that adhered to switchgrass. They cloned some of these genes into bacteria, and successfully produced 90 proteins of interest. They found that 57 percent of these proteins demonstrated enzymatic activity against cellulosic plant material."
- Biofuel grasslands better for birds than ethanol staple corn, 6 January 2011 press release by Michigan State University: "Developing biofuel from native perennials instead of corn in the Midwest’s rolling grasslands would better protect threatened bird populations, Michigan State University research suggests."
- "Federal mandates and market forces both are expected to promote rising biofuel production, MSU biologist Bruce Robertson says, but the environmental consequences of turning more acreage over to row crops for fuel are a serious concern."
- "'Native perennial grasses might provide an opportunity to produce biomass in ways that are compatible with the conservation of biodiversity and important ecosystem services such as pest control,' Robertson said...."
- "In the first such empirical comparison and the first to simultaneously study grassland bird communities across habitat scales, Robertson and colleagues found that bugs and the birds that feed on them thrive more in mixed prairie grasses than in corn. Almost twice as many species made their homes in grasses, while plots of switchgrass, a federally designated model fuel crop, fell between the two in their ability to sustain biodiversity."
- "The larger the plot of any type, researchers found, the greater the concentration of birds supported. But if grasslands offer conservation and biofuel opportunities, Robertson said, the biodiversity benefits could decrease as biofuel grass feedstocks are bred and cultivated for commercial uniformity."
- Read the paper, Perennial biomass feedstocks enhance avian diversity (PDF file)
- Grasses Have Potential as Alternate Ethanol Crop, Illinois Study Finds, 1 November 2010 by Science Daily: "Researchers at the University of Illinois have completed the first extensive geographic yield and economic analysis of potential bioenergy grass crops in the Midwestern United States."
- "[F]ederal regulations mandate that 79 billion liters of biofuels must be produced annually from non-corn biomass by 2022. Large grasses, such as switchgrass and miscanthus, could provide biomass with the added benefits of better nitrogen fixation and carbon capture, higher ethanol volumes per acre and lower water requirements than corn."
- "Switchgrass is large prairie grass native to the Midwest, and Miscanthus, a sterile hybrid, is already widely cultivated in Europe as a biofuel crop."
- "The team published its results in the October issue of the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy."
- "The researchers found that, in general, the yield is very high for miscanthus -- up to three times higher than switchgrass in the Midwest. Even through switchgrass is native to the region, it doesn't grow well in higher latitudes like Minnesota or Wisconsin because it has poor tolerance for cold temperatures."
- "Most notably, for the southernmost counties -- much of southern Illinois and nearly all of Missouri -- the model predicts greater production of grasses than of current corn and soy crops. This could be a key factor in farmers' decisions to cultivate biofuel crops."
- "Unlike annual crops that provide a farmer with a crop every year, miscanthus and switchgrass require a lag of at least two years before harvesting."
- Fungus Genes Help Turn Grass into Ethanol, 10 September 2010 by Technology Review: "Genes copied from a common fungus could simplify the production of ethanol from abundant materials such as grass and wood chips, a development that could one day help ethanol compete with gasoline."
- "Scientists have taken genes from a fungus that grows on grass and dead plants, and transplanted them into yeast that is already used to turn sugar into ethanol. The genes let the yeast ferment parts of plants that it normally can't digest, potentially streamlining the production of ethanol."
- "Most ethanol is produced using simple sugars, like the glucose derived from corn kernels or sugar cane. Ethanol producers would like to use glucose from more abundant sources, such as corn husks and stalks, switchgrass, wood waste, and other tough plant materials. But those plant parts are made of cellulose, a carbohydrate built from long chains of sugars. For yeast to produce ethanol from these materials, the complex carbohydrate has to first be broken down into very simple sugars, a process that takes time and normally requires the addition of expensive enzymes."
- "With the new technique, ethanol makers would no longer have to break cellulose down into simple sugars. Instead, they would only need to break down cellulose into an intermediate material called cellodextrin."
- Genetic map for switchgrass published, aids in study of biofuel, August 25 2010 by Andrea Johnson: "As farmers wait to produce new alternative energy crops, some USDA Agri-cultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are uncovering the secrets of switchgrass which, they say, holds so much potential as an alternative energy source."
- "The USDA ARS Switchgrass team has found that switchgrass produces five times the cellulosic ethanol needed to cover the energy needs required to grow it and make it into fuel."
- "It is also a perennial that reduces weed pressure and holds soils in place - preventing wind and rain erosion. It sequesters carbon long term, and it can be fed to cattle."
- "One of the challenges with switchgrass is the need for fertilizer and water - just like corn - to produce maximum yields. Because it’s a perennial, it is challenging to get into the tall grass to apply fertilizer. The more switchgrass is harvested, the more water and fertilizer it needs to continue to thrive."
- "Scientists hope to modify the cell wall composition of switchgrass to improve its properties for co-firing in a power plant. They also hope to use biotechnology to increase its digestibility and access to enzymes that would produce fermentable sugars for ethanol production."
- Researchers propose movable biofuel center, 8 July 2010 by UPI.org: "If agricultural waste can't go to a biofuel processing center, then the processing center should go to the agricultural waste, U.S. researchers theorized."
- "Researchers at Purdue University propose creating mobile processing plants that would roam the Midwest to produce biofuels using a technique called fast-hydropyrolysis-hydrodeoxygenation, the West Lafayette, Ind., university said this week in a release."
- "'What's important is that you can process all kinds of available biomass -- wood chips, switch grass, corn stover, rice husks, wheat straw,' said Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone distinguished professor of chemical engineering."
- Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Awards Woody Biomass Utilization Projects, 24 June 2010 by the USDA: "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the award of more than $4.2 million in grants to 13 small businesses and community groups developing innovative renewable energy projects and new product development using woody biomass from hazardous fuel reduction projects on National Forest land."
- "'Energy derived from woody biomass, switch-grass and other sources has enormous potential benefits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing clean, home-grown energy, and providing economic opportunities for rural America,' Vilsack said. 'Markets for woody biomass can also bolster forest restoration activities on both public and private lands, improving the ecological health of our forests and reducing the impacts of global climate change.'"
- "In Arizona, for example, Cooley Forest Products will purchase a mobile canter saw allowing them to process small logs at a forest landing, thereby reducing transportation costs. West Range Reclamation in Colorado can now acquire a delimber/debarker allowing them to efficiently process beetle-killed trees."
- "Earlier this week, Vilsack released a report which provided a roadmap on how America can meet the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2)."
- POET announces plans for 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2022, 21 April 2010 by POET: "POET, the largest producer of ethanol in the world, has made enough progress on technology and feedstock development to break ground on its first plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa later this year"
- "'By 2022, POET plans to be responsible for 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol production by adding the technology to our existing facilities, licensing our technology to other producers and finally, transferring our technology to other forms of biomass such as wheat straw, switchgrass and municipal waste,' Broin said. That volume would represent over 20 percent of the cellulosic ethanol mandated in the Renewable Fuel Standard."
- DOE and USDA Award $24 Million in Biomass Grants, 18 November 2009 by EERE News: "DOE and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on November 12 more than $24 million in grants for the research and development (R&D) of biofuels, bioenergy, and high-value biobased products. The grants will support a dozen projects aimed at increasing the availability of biofuels and other products produced from biomass."
- In Search of Wildlife-friendly Biofuels: Could Native Prairie Plants Be the Answer, 29 September 2009 by NewsWise/Michigan Technological University: "The unintended consequence of crop-based biofuels may be the loss of wildlife habitat, particularly that of the birds who call this country’s grasslands home, say researchers from Michigan Technological University and The Nature Conservancy."
- "What’s the solution? There are at least two ways to produce bioenergy without destroying wildlife [and habitat], the researchers say. One is to use biomass sources that don’t require additional land, such as agricultural residues and other wastes from municipal, animal, food and forestry industries."
- "Another is to grow native perennials such as switchgrass and big bluestem. The natural diversity of prairie plants offers many benefits, including increased carbon storage in the soil, erosion control and the maintenance of insect diversity, which does double duty by providing food for birds and helping to pollinate nearby crops."
- Bioelectricity Beats Biofuel, 16 June 2009 by LiveScience: "Biofuels such as ethanol were once thought of as planet-savers....[but] a new study calculates that bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops."
- "...a small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass, while a comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel about 9,000 miles on the highway."
- "'The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles...Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren't enough to overcome this.'" 
- Worldwatch & Sierra Club Outline Smart Choices for Biofuels, 19 February 2009 by RenewableEnergyWorld.com: "The Sierra Club and Worldwatch Institute have released a new report, "Smart Choices for Biofuels" (PDF file), that highlights the need for policy reforms to increase the use of biofuels in the U.S."
- Grass biofuels 'cut CO2 by 94%', 8 January 2008, by BBC News: A new report by US researchers has found that fast-growing "switchgrass-derived ethanol produced 540% more energy than was required to manufacture the fuel" and "delivers vast savings of carbon dioxide emissions compared with petrol." The paper, "Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass (PDF file)" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed all of the energy input factors, including "nitrogen fertiliser, herbicides, diesel and seed production."
- Family sees hot promise in pellets, 30 April 2007 from the Times Leader. A family company will produce a portable machine to create biomass pellets from switchgrass. The pellets can be used as a substitute for heating oil.
- Adoption Subsidies and Environmental Impacts of Alternative Energy Crops by Bruce A. Babcock, Philip W. Gassman, Manoj Jha, Catherine L. Kling; Center for Agricultural and Renewable Development, Iowa State University, March 2007. Provides "estimates of the costs associated with inducing substantial conversion of land from production of traditional crops to switchgrass" and examines "potential environmental consequences of conversion".
- Costs of Producing Switchgrass for Biomass in Southern Iowa (pdf) by Michael D. Duffy and Virginie Y. Nanhou; Reprinted from: Trends in new crops and new uses. 2002. J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.). ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.
|Elephant grass | Miscanthus | Switchgrass|
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