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Research to Boost Biofuel Capacity of Switchgrass – Michigan State University

Switchgrass Heading North to Make Biofuel
Switchgrass Heading North to Make Biofuel

As a biofuel feedstock, switchgrass is fairly well-suited to the task of carbon sequestration, but it could be even better, says Michigan State University (MSU)

As a biofuel feedstock, harvested switchgrass is fermented to produce ethanol (C2H6O), a type of alcohol. Ethanol can then be blended with gasoline, up to 85% for flex-fuel vehicles, reducing carbon emissions by the amount that was sequestered by the switchgrass during its growth stages. It is interesting to note, however, that we could have pure ethanol vehicles, essentially carbon-neutral. The Ford Model T ran on ethanol, as do some race cars, so it is possible, even if not economically feasible.

Switchgrass is a fairly hardy grass, grows in a variety of conditions, and is naturally-occurring as far as 55 °N in North America. Because of its extensive root system, it doesn’t need to be replanted after cutting or after the winter, which makes it self-replenishing. Biofuel researchers, however, believe that making the plant even hardier, enough to survive the winter intact, as well as increase mass in northern latitudes, will make it even better suited as a biofuel feedstock.

The idea is to increase the amount of switchgrass biomass that can be grown without impacting current croplands. Further north, there are great prairies that aren’t extensively utilized, but a hardy switchgrass biofuel feedstock would grow there nicely. Working with a million-dollar US DOE and USDA (United States Departments of Energy and Agriculture), MSU researchers will working develop a hardier breed of switchgrass, one better suited to northern climes.

“This project will explore the genetic basis for cold tolerance that will permit the breeding of improved switchgrass cultivars that can yield higher biomass in northern climates,” said Robin Buell, an MSU botanist and AgBioResearch scientist. “It’s part of an ongoing collaboration with scientists in the USDA Agricultural Research Service to explore diversity in native switchgrass as a way to improve its yield and quality as a biofuel feedstock.”

Photo credit: holdit

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