Cut CO2 by 94%, Produce 540% EROEI with Switchgrass!

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Switchgrass is nothing less than amazing!

BBC News reports on a new study, Grass biofuels ‘cut CO2 by 94%’.

Producing biofuels from a fast-growing grass delivers vast savings of carbon dioxide emissions compared with petrol, a large-scale study has suggested.

A team of US researchers also found that switchgrass-derived ethanol produced 540% more energy than was required to manufacture the fuel.

One acre (0.4 hectares) of the grassland could, on average, deliver 320 gallons of bioethanol, they added.

This is good news for the United States in so many ways:

  1. Fewer CO2 emissions – 94% is almost “carbon neutral”

  2. 540% EROEI – Growing “energy independence”

  3. Better than corn and soy – Less need for harmful herbicides and pesticides, such as Atrazine

  4. Native prairie grass – Improves local biodiversity

  5. Plant once – Reduces erosion and farm fuel consumption

The five-year study on switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) was led by Ken Vogel, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His findings are published this week by in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass (PDF) (Abstract).

According to Nature News, Prairie grass energy boost studied in the field. There is more energy potential in switchgrass than in other crops used in biofuels. Vogel estimated that annually a hectacre of switchgrass could produce an average of 60 gigajoules of energy if turned into bioethanol. Switchgrass had a net 540% Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). “Soya bean biodiesel, in contrast, returns 93% more energy than is used to produce it, whereas corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25% more energy. Greenhouse-gas emissions from the switchgrass would be 94% lower than emissions from petrol, they calculate – that’s nearly, but not quite, carbon neutral.”

The Reuters story on the study explains how the CO2 savings is made.

Switchgrass plants sequester carbon dioxide in the ground because they have extensive root systems that remain buried after the crop is harvested, Vogel said. Steep greenhouse gas emissions reductions, of about 94 percent compared to gasoline, are contingent on burning switchgrass waste to fire bio-refineries. Unlike waste left over from corn after it is made into ethanol, switchgrass waste cannot be made into the animal feed distillers’ grain.

Corn and soybeans need to be planted every year. This causes increased risk of soil erosion and the non-native crops require using herbicides and pesticides that can be environmentally harmful to wildlife and people. Scientific America reports Grass makes better ethanol than corn does. Switchgrass only needs to be planted once and is a plant indigenous plant to the vast American prairie and “once established, the fields yielded from 5.2 to 11.1 metric tons of grass bales per hectare, depending on rainfall”. But, there still is a large challenge blocking the adoption of switchgrass ethanol.

But yields from a grass that only needs to be planted once would deliver an average of 13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed-in the form of nitrogen fertilizers or diesel for tractors-growing them. “It’s a prediction because right now there are no biorefineries built that handle cellulosic material” like that which switchgrass provides, Vogel notes. “We’re pretty confident the ethanol yield is pretty close.” This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.

As noted, the catch is there presently are not any biorefineries that handle the switchgrass. The refineries are currently geared toward producing ethanol from corn and soybeans. However this may be about to change. In a story about the study, Associated Press reports on the effort underway to develop cellulosic ethanol:

Renewable Fuels Association spokesman Matt Hartwig said this latest study adds to the evidence supporting the development of cellulosic ethanol.

“It underscores that cellulosic ethanol production is not only feasible, it is essential,” said Hartwig, whose group represents ethanol producers.

Nebraska Ethanol Board Projects Manager Steve Sorum said the industry is excited about the prospects for cellulosic ethanol because the feedstocks for it, such as switch grass, are cheaper to grow. Plus some of the byproducts created in the process can be burned to generate electricity.

Sorum said the key will be developing an economic way to break down the cell walls of cellulose-based fuel sources…

Last year, the Department of Energy announced plans to invest $385 million in six ethanol refineries across the country to jump-start ethanol production from cellulose-based sources, a process that has not yet been proven commercially viable.

When $385 million for cellulose ethanol production is compared to the opportunity costs due to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, our country’s “jump start” is laughable. Kansas and Nebraska has spent $7.2 billion on the war and the entire country together has spent over $484.2 billion on it. To me, the nation’s priorities are obviously wrong.

Changing to switchgrass-based ethanol would have additional environmental benefits. Growing native prairie grasses can help preserve our country’s biodiversity and help reduce erosion and the use of pesticides and herbacides. According to Land of Biofuels? an article in this month’s Minnesota Conservation, a journal published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

From tilling to fertilizing to irrigating to distilling, corn ethanol production consumes large amounts of fossil fuels and water — offsetting some of the biofuel benefits of being local, renewable, and carbon neutral. And the increased demand for corn puts pressure on farmers to convert grasslands to cornfields. Soil erosion and water pollution increase when grassland is plowed and fertilized for corn. And few animals find cornfields to be as satisfactory for habitat as native grasslands and brushlands…

First, many plants — particularly native perennial plants — need far less fossil fuel input to grow, so production of ethanol from native plants would generate less CO2. Prairie grasses, such as switchgrass, big bluestem, prairie cordgrass, and Indiangrass (or better yet, a mixture including wildflowers), also provide superb wildlife habitat. Grasses help soil stay in place and filter polluted runoff. If plant species and genetic makeup, land, and harvest regimen were coordinated to maximize natural resource potential, native vegetation managed for cellulosic biofuels could provide far better homes for ducks, deer, songbirds, prairie chickens, and other native species than row crops.

“We think [biomass harvest] can have a positive benefit, particularly if it means something that’s in row crop production now is converted to grass, or if it means we have lands that are decadent that we can then use biomass harvest as a management tool to increase the productivity of those lands for wildlife,” says DNR farmland wildlife program leader Bill Penning. For instance, Penning says, DNR currently invests hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in brushland management for brushland-dependent wildlife species such as sharp-tailed grouse. If brush becomes a commodity, management could start to pay for itself.

“That’s a win-win situation for us,” Penning says. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Neither could I. Switchgrass is amazing. Let’s solve the challenges with cellulosic ethanol, start planting prairie grasses, and get those bio-refineries built. I cannot wait for this future for America and the heartland!


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    • Magnifico on January 9, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,

    Don’t fence me in.

    Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,

    Don’t fence me in.

    Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,

    And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,

    Send me off forever but I ask you please,

    Don’t fence me in.

    • Magnifico on January 9, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    As the people on dKos have noted 540% doesn’t include solar…  so if you want to attack the essay because of this… have at it.

    • Nordic on January 9, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    I’m a biofuel user.  I bought an 85 Benz and run it on 99% biodiesel.  I’ve done a lot of research into biofuels and especially biodiesel.  It’s been interesting to see it “become” controversial.  The whole “we’re growing fuel instead of food!” argument.

    The problem with that argument is that a hell of a lot of our “food” is nothing but cattle feed, so that we can all eat cheap steaks and hamburgers.  

    Another problem with the argument is that it assumes that once you start making fuel from the produce of the land, somehow you can never make food again.  That’s the hidden message in the complaints, anyway — “it’s ruining farmland!”  It’s NOT ruining farmland, it’s simply diverting the solar energy that falls on that farmland from cattle feed to automotive fuel (for instance).

    And one of the main things they are ignoring is this:  Biofuels can be produced on land that isn’t suitable for much else.  In Brazil they’re using extremely marginal almost desert-like land to grow castor beans, from which Biodiesel can be made.   In the deserts of the SW United States there are many plants that can be grown on this otherwise unproductive land that have a high oil content and can thusly produce biodiesel, and at the same time trap more CO2 from the air (since there’s not much growing there now.)   Pepper trees, for instance.

    It won’t, and probably never should, replace fossil fuel.  But what’s cool about running your car on what is basically vegetable oil is that it really gets you to think about exactly what we’re burning in order to run these monstrous cars around.  35 gallons of vegetable oil, to drive you around Los Angeles for a week or two, makes you think.

    And everybody should think about this.  We’ve been burning zillions of gallons of crude oil every day for decades now, using it like it’s air we breathe, our god-given birthright.  It’s not.  It’s black, stinky, flammable goo that pollutes our world.  We should at least be AWARE of this.  

    • nocatz on January 10, 2008 at 12:52 am

    but there is this caveat from the Minnesota link

    Arnosti agrees. “I refer to biomass or bioenergy as a two-edged sword — it can cut both ways,” he says. “If we are smart enough as a society and a community to deploy this technology wisely, we can achieve many benefits.”

    Whether that’s what actually happens, he adds, depends on all of us.

    “I think it’s really important that the public get involved,” he says. “I would ask the people of Minnesota to look behind the curtain, like in The Wizard of Oz. ? Ask tough questions, and try to think long term.”

    One thing to be wary of is that Jeff Sessions had the ‘switchgrass’ put into Bush’s speech.

    this doesn’t automaticallly discount it, but be aware that just like corn, switchgrass is already political.

    The ecological benefits may be in planting in ag. fields, but 10,000 acres of monoculture is generally not much eco-benefit no matter what the plant…if it’s mixed like a real prairie, what is the effect on efficiency?

    and where? Parts of the SW may work, as Nordic suggests, but I would argue it would almost have to be (or should only be)in existing ag. situations.  Arizona already uses a great deal of water to grow cotton (subsidized) and ..and produces relatively little, so they could switch to panic grass  there because I believe switchgrass will require irrigation too, as it only grows in higher, wetter places here.  

    And we ain’t planting any Pepper Trees either….(native plant freak here, maybe try mesquite beans, they have a high sugar content)

  1. the company I work for grows is Panicum virgatum “Cloud Nine.” Our website seems to be undergoing construction but since we are strictly wholesale it doesn’t seem wrong to post images from a retail dealer:

    In case anybody wondered what switchgrass looks like.

    • kj on January 10, 2008 at 1:45 am

    subject that needs to be discussed.  What Brazil has done is amazing to me, what little I understand.  All of their government fleet vehicles, for instance, run on their biofuel (from the sugar canes waste?), and that sort of proactive program is something I wish our government would consider.

    Thanks for the essay and all the comments.  This is something I’d love to learn more about.

    • kj on January 10, 2008 at 1:52 am

    a cover crop that could be grown in rotation that could benefit the ground (replace nutrients) that would also double as biomass?


    • kj on January 10, 2008 at 1:58 am

    is hot, hot, hot in northern Missouri, a region that is desperately attempting to hold on its population and ag base.   biopharming is (or was, a few years ago) also being explored, but seems to have been dismissed, for now.  the switchgrass has fascinating potential.  

  2. Virginia. 2004 and 2006. Al Weed, a retired Command Sergeant Major in the Virginia National Guard, runs for Congress on the platform of Economic Development through reinvigorated agriculture, using switchgrass for biofuels.

    Since I can’t get the photo to preview correctly, I will end this comment here and try again in another comment.

  3. fascination, Magnifico.  Thanks for bringing this “new” information here.

    It is wonderful to know that there is something that has the potential of being about 250% more efficient than corn ethanol, without depleting nutrients and depriving much needed food.

    Although mentioned,

    . . . . cellulosic biofuels could provide far better homes for ducks, deer, songbirds, prairie chickens, and other native species than row crops.

    This is the only danger I see (even taking into consideration that switchgrass would be grown on less harvestable lands).  We cannot deprive the wildlife of its food, upset the eco-balance (any more than it already has been) in order to satisfy an urgent requirement of us to develop alternative fuels.  Like with everything, just take a look at how animals are raised for our food, etc., man becomes too greedy always and that greed supersedes all of the rest of the concerns.  So, with that, I would look forward to this technological development with switchgrass heartily, as long as wildlife was considered conjunctively, and a matter of law.


  4. Test runs on existing coalfired facilities used 50% switchgrass workeed fine. You get more averted pollution, both CO2 and heavy metals, when using biomass to replace coal than petroleum.

    The politica aren’t as sexy though, since we burn domestic coal.

  5. http://www.unconfirmedsources….

    Best,  Terry

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