Scientists Study Feasibility of Switchgrass for Bioenergy

Results to be issued in May conclude that the economics of growing switchgrass for bioenergy are promising. The study producing these results is a cooperative effort between the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and University of Nebraska economist Richard Perrin. The threshold level for success as established by the ARS and cooperators on 10 northern Plains farms in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota found that two switchgrass plants per square foot the first year ensures a successful bioenergy crop harvest in subsequent years.

Interest in switchgrass ethanol has intensified recently as the federal government gains confidence in its potential as a bioenergy crop because of its wide adaptability and high yields on marginal lands. Soil scientist Mark Liebig, of the ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, North Dakota, worked on the study led by Ken Vogel, a geneticist at the ARS Grain, Forage and Bioenergy Research Unit in Lincoln, Nebraska. Liebig’s contribution to the study was to quantify another potential switchgrass benefit: soil carbon storage. Vogel is an expert in breeding and management of new, higher-yielding varieties of switchgrasses best suited to ethanol conversion. The northern Plains region was chosen first because the economics seemed most favorable there. Farmers can expect switchgrass yields to be high enough there to produce 100 to 400 gallons of ethanol per acre with current varieties. Switchgrass can be converted to ethanol just as cornstalks can. It also can be burned to produce electricity. Growing switchgrass for ethanol could bring new industries to rural areas. As a perennial plant, switchgrass has the advantage of not needing annual planting and tillage. Skipping these can save soil and energy. It can also reduce sediment and other pollutant losses to waterways. Switchgrass is a native prairie grass long used for conservation plantings and cattle feed in the United States. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.
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