Hay growers continue to be curious about the marketing possibilities of growing switchgrass or other cellulosic crops for biofuel production, says Ken Vogel, a USDA-ARS geneticist in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomy and horticulture department. He advises that they practice patience, however.
“Don't get excited about it until there is something being built within easy trucking distance,” he advises.
“Or,” suggests Cole Gustafson, North Dakota State University (NDSU) biofuel economist, “the growers themselves might have to find ways to go forward independently and fund some of these projects themselves as a cooperative or with individual private companies.”
Yet some growers are already finding biofuel or renewable energy opportunities in their backyards, the experts say.
Tennessee farmers are growing switchgrass on contract for Genera Energy, which has built a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant (see "A Market For Switchgrass,"). Poet, another ethanol company, recently started up a pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Scotland, SD, using corncobs as feedstock. It plans to build a commercial plant in Emmetsburg, IA. Projects near Spiritwood, ND, and York, NE, are working to co-fire cellulosic biomass with coal to produce energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy has granted funds to several cellulosic projects located around the U.S. with plans to have commercial plants up and running in the next two years, Gustafson says.
Besides Poet's endeavors, Abengoa Bioenergy will start building, this year, a plant in Hugoton, KS. It will use corn stover, straw, milo stubble and switchgrass. BlueFire Ethanol has two cellulosic biorefineries on the drawing board, one in Fulton MS, to utilize green and wood wastes, and one in Lancaster, PA, which will use municipal waste, tree branches and other plant materials. A Range Fuels project, located in Soperton, GA, will use timber.
Now that technologies to convert switchgrass, corn residues, timber and other cellulosic materials to fuel are available, researchers are working to make the processes more efficient, Vogel says.
One process uses enzymes to break the plant material down for conversion to ethanol. Another process, called thermochemical conversion, utilizes raw cellulose from plants, gasifies it and then pours it on a coal fire to create energy for, say, electric utilities, says Gustafson.
In the meantime, research on forage crops for biofuels, and particularly switchgrass, is being conducted across the country, Vogel says.
“Research is being funded by the Department of Energy; the Department of Agriculture, in-house and external; and there is some money going to the Sun Grant program from the Departments of Transportation and Energy,” he says. “Private companies are getting involved and a lot of the states are involved with their own funding.
“States that have never done any work on switchgrass are doing evaluation trials. They're finding out what works in their areas; a lot of local adaptation management work is being done,” Vogel says.
NDSU, for example, has a 10-year research trial involving over 50 different biomass grasses at five research sites across the state. “Switchgrass is one of the many grasses,” says Gustafson, “but others are coming up superior.”