Fuel production from forages was a recurring topic at this week's American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) conference in State College, PA. On Monday morning, Tom Richard, director of Penn State University's Biomass Energy Center, told the gathering that cellulosic ethanol production is fairly close to becoming reality, although challenges remain. Initially, he said, the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol will be about the same as that of corn ethanol. The fermentation process will be more expensive, but the feedstock will be cheaper. Over time, though, cellulosic ethanol will become less costly to produce, resulting in a higher net energy value than is possible with corn ethanol.

Richard said government support programs will be needed for biomass crops in order for them to compete with crops grown for other uses. Perennial forages look better than annuals because they capture more solar energy, growing earlier in spring and later in fall. However, double-cropped combinations of annual forages also could work. Later that day, attendees viewed plots where various crops are being grown by Penn State researchers to evaluate their biomass potential. So far, switchgrass and reed canarygrass have produced the most biomass per acre, said the researchers.

The Penn State workers also are developing grass pellets to replace wood pellets in pellet-burning stoves.