The Heat Is Online

USDA Finds Promise in Grass-based Biofuels

Grass biofuels 'cut CO2 by 94%', Jan. 8, 2008


Producing biofuels from a fast-growing grass delivers vast savings of carbon dioxide emissions compared with petrol, a large-scale study has suggested.


A team of US researchers also found that switchgrass-derived ethanol produced 540% more energy than was required to manufacture the fuel.


One acre (0.4 hectares) of the grassland could, on average, deliver 320 barrels of bioethanol, they added.

Their paper appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The five-year study, involving 10 farms ranging in size from three to nine hectares, was described as the largest study of its kind by the paper's authors.


Co-author Ken Vogel of the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agriculture Research Service, based at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said that all previous energy analyses had been based on data from research plots and estimated inputs.


Last year, a team of scientists had also examined the energy gains from ethanol produced from switchgrass, but their model suggested that the net gain was in the region of 343%, which was considerably less that the USDA team's findings.


"A lot of their information was based on small plot data and also estimates of what would be needed in the agronomic production of biofuels," Dr Vogel explained.


"We had on-farm trials, so we had all the data from the farmers on all the inputs needed to produce the crops.


"We were able to take this information and put it into this model and able to come up with a very real-world estimate."


The energy inputs required to produce the crops included nitrogen fertiliser, herbicides, diesel and seed production.


However, he added that as there were no large-scale biorefineries in operation, the team did have to estimate how much bioethanol such a plant would be able to produce in order to calculate the net energy gain.


"Right now, the Department of Energy is co-funding the construction of six biorefineries in the US. These plants will be completed around 2010, and will be above the pilot plant scale."


Although the process to produce ethanol from switchgrass was more complex than using food crops such as wheat or corn, the so-called "second generation" biofuel could produce much higher energy yields per tonne because it utilised the whole plant rather than just the seeds.


Carbon cuts


The team also calculated that the production and consumption of switchgrass-derived ethanol cut CO2 emissions by about 94% when compared with an equivalent volume of petrol.


Burning biofuels releases carbon dioxide, but growing the plants absorbs a comparable amount of the gas from the atmosphere.

However, the energy inputs used during the growing and processing of the crops means the fuel is rarely "carbon neutral".


"Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of ethanol from switchgrass, using only the displacement method, showed 88% less GHG emissions than conventional ethanol," the researchers wrote.


"The use of... biomass residue for energy at a... biorefinery is the main reason why switchgrass and human-made prairies have theoretically lower GHG emissions than biofuels from annual (food) crops, where processing is currently derived from fossil fuels."


A number of organisations, including the UN, have expressed concern that biofuels could do more harm than good.


The criticisms of the technology include taking large areas of arable land out of food production, inflating crop prices and limited carbon emission savings.


"In contrast to most European countries, the US has quite a bit of land that is being held outside of (food) production at the moment," Dr Vogel told BBC News.


"We are looking at the use of switchgrass on marginal cropland The intent is to have energy crops being grown on marginal cropland, so it would not be in competition with food crops on our best land.


He also added that there were other factors within the process of producing the biofuel that limited its financial and environmental feasibility.


"Because there is going to be a lot of tonnage of material shipped to the biorefinery, there is going to be some economics involved."


In order to maximise the carbon reductions, he said: "A biorefinery will have a feedstock supply radius of about 25 to 50 miles, so the feedstock of any biorefinery needs to be localised."


As the switchgrass had to be sourced within the local area, Dr Vogel said it was important that the land delivered a high yield of grass in order to meet the refinery's demands.


Annual rainfall was a key factor affecting the delivery of the necessary yields.


Story from BBC NEWS: 


Prairie Grass: Fuel of the Future?

The Asssociated Press, Jan. 9, 2008  

New research shows that prairie grasses grown using only moderate amounts of fertilizer on marginal land can produce significant amounts of ethanol.

The five-year study of switch grass done by the University of Nebraska and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service  was published this week by the National Academy of Sciences.

Researcher Ken Vogel said he estimates that an acre of switch grass would produce an average of 300 gallons of ethanol based on the study of grass grown on marginal land on farms in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.

An acre of corn grown in those same states produces about 350 gallons of ethanol on average.

Renewable Fuels Association spokesman Matt Hartwig said this latest study adds to the evidence supporting the development of cellulosic ethanol.

"It underscores that cellulosic ethanol production is not only feasible, it is essential," said Hartwig, whose group represents ethanol producers.

Nebraska Ethanol Board Projects Manager Steve Sorum said the industry is excited about the prospects for cellulosic ethanol because the feedstocks for it, such as switch grass, are cheaper to grow. Plus some of the byproducts created in the process can be burned to generate electricity.

Sorum said the key will be developing an economic way to break down the cell walls of cellulose-based fuel sources.

Hartwig said there is general agreement that 15 billion gallons a year is about the most ethanol that can be produced from grain with current technology without hurting grain markets. So he said it's important to develop other sources for the renewable fuel.

Vogel said comparing the amount of ethanol produced by corn with the amount that could be produced by switch grass is a bit unfair because the method of converting switch grass to fuel is still being perfected.

Last year, the Department of Energy announced plans to invest $385 million in six ethanol refineries across the country to jump-start ethanol production from cellulose-based sources, a process that has not yet been proven commercially viable.

But Vogel and the other researchers did develop an estimate of how much energy switch grass would produce based on current conversion rates. Switch grass produces more than five times as much energy than the energy that's consumed by growing the crop and converting it to ethanol, according to the report.

Vogel said this switch grass research is the most extensive to date. Vogel is a U.S. Department of Agriculture geneticist and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor.