State of the Union addresses, for the most part, are forgotten within a few days. Political pundits and news anchors dissect them and then move on to more timely topics.
The one President Bush delivered in 2006 was no exception — except for the few lines he included about ethanol and, specifically, switchgrass.
“Switchgrass was a diamond in the rough,” says Joe Bouton, senior vice president and director of the Forage Improvement Division at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Okla.
Scientists, including some in the U.S. Department of Energy, had been looking at switchgrass as a possible ethanol source for years, but moderate gasoline prices and tepid interest in renewable fuels throughout most of the 1990s caused DOE to scale back the research.
Bouton was working at the University of Georgia at the time and switchgrass variety improvement, for fuel or forage, was part of his focus.
“We had DOE funding for renewable fuel research in the late 1990s,” he says, “but in 2001 there was not much enthusiasm for switchgrass variety development, and funding ceased.”
But when he moved from Georgia to South Oklahoma, he brought switchgrass research to the Noble Foundation, an independent, non-profit institution dedicated to improving farm and ranch operations in Southern Oklahoma and Northern Texas. He was working with the native grass primarily as a forage and for CPR land.
“It was a good fit for the foundation,” he says, “so I kept working on it.”
Then, the 2005 State of the Union address and a remark about switchgrass as a potential renewable fuel source put a surge into the foundation's switchgrass breeding, production, and management program.
“Switchgrass went from a minor crop to as big a program as we run here,” Bouton says. “We were in a good position to contribute to this effort, based on our current programs and the work we had already done. We have a lot going on here now — from plant breeding and crop management to basic science and molecular genetics, all the way to actually working with area farmers and ranchers.”
Foundation scientists are currently exploring best management practices to establish and grow switchgrass as a crop.
“We get a lot of requests for information,” Bouton says.
The foundation also has agreed to a long-term collaboration with Ceres, Inc., a privately held plant biotechnology company at Thousand Oaks, Calif., for the development and commercialization of new, advanced biomass crops for ethanol production.
“Seed for an advanced switchgrass variety, an initial product of this relationship, is already being multiplied in preparation for commercialization,” says Richard Hamilton, Ceres chief executive officer.
Switchgrass will provide raw material to produce cellulosic ethanol.
“Cellulose is the Holy Grail of the industry,” Bouton says. “Ethanol yield per acre is higher from cellulosic material than from grain. We get a decent yield with grains, but if we can use the residue from a grain crop — at least some of it, since we need to keep some on the land — we can turn what's left, a waste product, into a valuable resource. We should be able to produce even more with a dedicated energy crop, like switchgrass.”
High-yielding grasses such as switchgrass produce a lot of cellulose, he says. “They're easy to grow. Switchgrass is native to the area, and we can grow it on land that is less-suited to corn. It also performs on land that is not as well-suited to alfalfa or hybrid bermudagrass, and it does well on more marginal cropland.”
Bouton says switchgrass uses less water than many other renewable fuel options. “It's fairly drought-tolerant and water-efficient. It also uses fertilizer efficiently. The key is, how many units of product (biomass) can we derive from each unit of input?”
He says DOE has done a lot of work with switchgrass over the years and has found it a stable, consistent biomass producer, “even in drier areas. It's a perennial crop, so producers don't have the annual investment of re-establishing it.”
Switchgrass stands last a long time, Bouton says, with consistently high yields, comparable to bermudagrass pastures, but without the required inputs, such as nitrogen, to sustain high yields.
Farmers and ranchers interested in producing a renewable fuel source need to ask what they can grow in their area and what's viable, he says.
“Biofuel production will rely on local markets, with a primary service area for raw materials of less than a 60 mile radius. Corn is not a real option here in South Oklahoma.”