The idea of using switchgrass to produce biofuels was brought up by former U.S. president George W. Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address, which was received with an equal amount of laughter and serious research.
Years later, the Obama administration is making this a reality, but research that began with switchgrass has switched to sugarcane, and the first real product results should be unveiled within two years.
Regardless of who was responsible for the switchgrass sound bite in Bush’s speech, it prompted an in-depth study from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, which suggested that millions of homes and businesses would save money by burning biomass instead of oil in the form of switchgrass pellets.
More specifically, the study concluded that using switchgrass pellets instead of petroleum fuel oil to generate one gigajoule of heat would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 146 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent. Totaling all costs associated with actually producing this biofuel and revamping residential heating system to run on it, the team concluded that each gigajoule of heat produced using switchgrass pellets would cost $7 less than using fuel oil.
Texas A&M AgriLife Research department has been working on this idea for years, headed by Dr. Jorge da Silva. Dr. Silva says he expects the first product to be released from his lab within two years, but he’s swapped the switchgrass for sugarcane because it’s easier to re-engineer. ”Unlike corn, or even switchgrass, sugarcane is unique in that it can be crossed with different species, including sorghum, to create new plant varieties with favorable traits that are competitive with corn in producing biofuels,” he told reporters.
Dr. Silva transfers the desirable genetic traits from various plant sources to sugarcane using genetic markers, rendering a new plant material referred to as wide-hybridization. These are the second generation of bioenergy plants — and they have the potential to replace corn, sugarcane, and switchgrass in the process of producing biofuels like ethanol.
Where are we now? Dr. Silva and his team started out with hundreds of thousands of possibilities of hybrids, which they have now narrowed down to the elites that stand the best chance of efficiently producing biofuels and being able to grow outside their “comfort zones.” Right now, these elite strains are being tested in various locations in Texas — where Bush would have wanted it to happen.
Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.
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