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URI Launches Switchgrass Engineering Project to Improve Biofuel Crop

A researcher at the University of Rhode Island is working to develop genetically modified switchgrass with a variety of traits that could double the biomass yield per acre and reduce the cost of cellulosic ethanol production to as low as $1 per gallon from approximately $2.70 per gallon now.

Albert Kausch has launched Project Golden Switchgrass at the University of Rhode Island, which he hopes will develop “the variety of enhanced switchgrass that everyone needs.

Switchgrass is a native plant of the tall grass prairies. It grows 12 feet tall in one season and produces 10 tons of plant material an acre, more biomass per year than most other plants. I’m confident my lab can make it produce 20 tons an acre using the tools and personnel we have right now.

There are several impediments to the process of converting switchgrass to ethanol that would make unaltered switchgrass commercially unprofitable. We are working with professors at Brown University, for instance, to create better enzymes that will degrade cellulose into sugars for a more efficient conversion to ethanol.

—Albert Kausch

Kausch is now genetically engineering switchgrass that is both sterile and resistant to herbicides, and he has a long list of other traits he hopes to improve as well, including drought tolerance, salt tolerance and cold tolerance. He expects to have test plots of the genetically modified plants on the URI campus within two years, and he hopes the first varieties will be in commercial production by 2011.

Sterility for gene confinement is an important consideration for the project. Kausch is working to create a switchgrass that does not flower or reproduce, thereby ensuring that the genetically modified organisms do not escape into the environment and affect wild switchgrass.

That’s a key concern with using corn for ethanol because some of the genes being engineered into corn to make it a better source of ethanol aren’t genes we want in the food chain. And without confinement, such as plant sterility, those genes could find their way into the corn that we eat.

—Albert Kausch

In addition, sterile plants that do not use their energy to produce flowers can use it to produce more biomass as leaves and plant material instead that in turn will produce more ethanol.



In addition, it can then be patented, the patent sold to Big Oil, and they can then restrict its use for the next 156 years and charge $2.70 for the Ethenol produced for $1. Good move.

Mike Z

20 Tons/acre is starting to bring cellulosic into the range of output per acre of algae bio diesel.

It's a nice development, but from everything I read the real hurdle is still in enzymes.


JMartin - right about the patents, although I think Big Farm (ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, whoever) will buy the patents. They have gradually industrialized not just the production of agricultural products, but also the use thereof. They have been pushing for ethanol subsidies and mandates for some time, and now one of them (don't recall which) has hired a CEO from Big Oil. Besides getting into the fuel business, this will put upward price pressure on food commodities as less land is devoted to growing stuff eaten by us rather than our cars.

Reality Czech

Greenfuel claims 5000 gallons of biodiesel plus 5000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year.  Cellulosic ethanol via Iogen's process is 70 gallons/ton (1400 gal/ac), Syntec claims 100 (2000 gal/ac).  Further, oils have much greater energy/volume than ethanol.

Mike Z.

Except Greenfuels relies on closed photobio reactors to get those results. I was refering to open pond numbers.


All transgenic crops, even the ones that freely reproduce and contaminate private farm land have patents, and those patents are already being used my Monsanto & friends to wipe out independent family farms across North America that their GMO plants have polluted. The sterile crops seem safer, but what happens if the sterility trait isn't fully suppressed amongst a few plants and that gene mixes with wild varieties?

kent beuchert

Apparently it has become the unwritten law or custom everytime some new biofuel scheme comes along for the projected price to always equal $1 per gallon. It happened with corn-based ethanol, and every other biofuel that's been proposed. I wonder what century it will be when it actually turns out to be true? The last time I looked, ethanol prices were the same as gasoline. I'm getting sick of all this, and am starting to believe that the alternative fuel industry cannot be trusted as much as the crude oil industry.

Paul Dietz

those patents are already being used my Monsanto & friends to wipe out independent family farms across North America that their GMO plants have polluted.

You mean, when said family farms deliberately selectively bred their contaminated fields to concentrate Mosanto's gene in the resulting seeds?

Doesn't sound quite so innocent when you look at it that way, does it? And apparently the courts didn't think so either.


So instead of mining the sub soil for energy we will be mining the top soil? To avoid soil depletion everything that is extracted must be replaced. The higher the yield the faster the cycle. How long would this be sustainable?


I don't mind the patent holder benefiting. I do mind Monsanto becoming the next OPEC and restricting supply.


Paul: In civil cases money talks and Monsanto walks. (O.J . too)


Most family farmers don't want monsanto genes or even know if they have them.
They grow a crop, save the best seed for the following year and sell or consume the rest. Pollen can float over from miles away and infect (or enhance) the crop and they won't know it. Then they get sued for passively stealing genes or lose customers who don't want GMO's. Family farmers don't have genetic labs. They don't have money for the latest greatest seeds either. That's why they replant seed (and the best genes will always carry over, duh!).

This is like suing people in the parking lot at a concert for listening to the music they didn't pay for. Are they supposed to wear ear plugs?


Even if they could double cellulosic ethanol's output and use less land and fertilizer than wasteful corn, it still doesn't match up to algae biodiesel.
And autos running on biodiesel get more than double the mileage of an E85 auto. So, if paying about the same for a gallon of biodiesel as for e85 (realistic in near future if biodiesel isn't cheaper), you have to buy at least twice as much e85 to go the same distance. Hence you spend twice as much $$$$. Gee, I wonder which is better.


Natural Switchgrass actually enriches the soil. I assume they will try to retain this in any GM version.

If I had a buyer, I would be willing to grow it in Western Wyoming. I really need to get into farming to reduce my property tax.

Paul Dietz

Paul: In civil cases money talks and Monsanto walks.

In other words, Monsanto is by definition wrong, regardless of evidence to the contrary. How wonderfully openminded of you.



I would posit that you haven't really provided any "evidence to the contrary" on the subject of Monsanto's rightness or wrongness. Reciting the fact that a court ruled a particular way, or telling a story about deliberate and knowing concentration of Monsanto gene traits, only advances the ball a little bit. The real claim here is that the court findings cannot be trusted. As a law student and sometime observer of how courts operate, I'm willing to entertain that notion, and would like some substantial references on each side in order to come to some sort of conclusion. Right now I'm simply agnostic.

And Darwin raises an important further point. If you are an old fashioned farmer who carries over seed corn from each harvest to the next, and your neighbor starts planting Monsanto crops next door or down the road, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to *stop* doing what you've been doing for generations -- carrying over your own seed corn -- because your neighbors planted a GMO crop and the seed supplier is overly uptight? Change your traditional practices of selecting the healthiest ears to compose the seed corn for the following season? Select only the second-healthiest looking ears?

My view would be that a farmer should have to actively seek out Monsanto genetic material and actively appropriate it before he gets into trouble. If Monsanto genetic material passively drifts over on the wind, and a farmer makes use of the resulting seeds, even knowing or suspecting that Monsanto material was in them, that should be Monsanto's problem for having put their valuable intellectual property into a form which can easily disperse itself around the countryside. In fact, a farmer whose seedlines are "contaminated" by Monsanto genetic material should be able to recover against Monsanto if he can prove that he lost the ability to sell at a premium in the organic / non-GMO market due to that contamination.

As to the potential patents on this plant: A biofuels researcher is likely to want to license this patent to someone who will actually produce fuel, as the resulting revenue stream could support some rich royalties. If the buyer really does bury the patent, we should probably think about making our compulsory licensing system a lot more robust. As to the prices that the producer will charge -- since this can generate monopoly rents in a market with a major close substitute and a relatively inelastic demand curve, the producer will always have incentive to price this to the consumer at slightly cheaper than gasoline, adjusted for MPG. It won't necessarily result in any major consumer savings, but if successful it may very well result in a rapid increase in the proportion of biofuels used -- and the enrichment of whomever owned the patent.


Just gasify the switchgrass and try not to pollute the whole natural switchgrass gene pool in the process.


w/o getting into the whole frankengrass debate.... would love to hear some thoughts on my back-of-an-envelope calculations-- I read the USDA paid farmers to lay fallow 37 mil. acres in 2005-- at 2000/gals/acre/yr. optimized, and with increased eth./electric hybrid use, and 30% higher fuel economy standards-- couldnt this meet all our trans. fuel needs, even factoring the lower energy content/gal. of ethanol? also sidestepping the food-or-fuel ethics debate....?


Paul: All I'm saying (as someone who used to work in a law firm) is that I would take any civil court ruling between a wealthy company and a family farmer with a big grain of salt. It's not an even playing field. Money really does talk.

shaun mann


put it this way:

2000 gal/acre/yr will run 4 average american vehicles (20 mpg on e100, 10k mi/yr).

are there more or less than 148 million vehicles in america? (more)

and these are gross gallons, not net. we have to assume some amount of energy goes into crop production and processing and subtract that from the gal/acre rating.

also, there is other fallow land that isn't used because it is marginal that could possibly be added to the 37 million that people are paid to not use.

that being said, this solution is probably in the right sort of range, if the farming energy inputs are small enough.



Generally US patent expires 20 years after patent filing date, and become everyone’s property (full text of patent is published shortly after filing). In order to obtain patent protection rights abroad, inventor should eventually patent it an EVERY country he want his invention be protected. It takes about 5-7 years and couple of millions. For food and biological products it is more expensive and much longer, and ultimately for drugs it is 12 years and about 250 millions per drug. Not much time is left to recover R&D and other costs, especially with real and important inventions which invariably require lengthy and costly development and marketing. These are some reasons why inventors very rarely become rich, or society suffers from patent monopoly or “burial”.


A bit off topic, but I believe that meaningful patent reform is long overdue. If America is to keep an innovative presence in the world, the time is at hand. (speech over :)

"Monsanto Co.'s "seed police" snared soy farmer Homan McFarling in 1999, and the company is demanding he pay it hundreds of thousands of dollars for alleged technology piracy.
McFarling's sin? He saved seed from one harvest and replanted it the following season, a revered and ancient agricultural practice.
"My daddy saved seed. I saved seed," said McFarling, 62, who still grows soy on the 5,000 acre family farm in Shannon, Miss. and is fighting the agribusiness giant in court.
Saving Monsanto's seeds, genetically engineered to kill bugs and resist weed sprays, violates provisions of the company's contracts with farmers.
Since 1997, Monsanto has filed similar lawsuits 90 times in 25 states against 147 farmers"

That's not to say that all the lawsuits are unfair...

in the same article "In a similar case a year ago, Tennessee farmer Kem Ralph was sued by Monsanto and sentenced to eight months in prison after he was caught lying about a truckload of cotton seed he hid for a friend."

"The company itself says it annually investigates about 500 "tips" that farmers are illegally using its seeds and settles many of those cases before a lawsuit is filed"

tom deplume

Will they be experimenting on the vast prairies of Rhode Island?


Monsanto has a right to condition sale of seed with a unique patented trait to use in a single crop year. Otherwise, they would have their intellectual property effectively stolen from them by each and every farmer.

What's to keep a farmer from buying 100 bags of seed, then harvesting all of it, bagging it for resale and then competing with Monsanto with their own product? The user agreement, that's what.

When farmers were "saving seed" they were doing so with relatively common seed. Farmers who continue to "save seed" to this day generally were worse producers than their neighbors who went out and researched the available hybrids and bought high quality seed from the seed companies.

And for those of you who talk about saving the "best" seed, I presume you have never spent time on a farm. Pray tell how would a farmer know which seed is better than the rest?

I actually grew up on a farm and saw both sides of this. Our family was a seed company grower, meaning we contracted with a company to grow a hybrid on our land. The quality requirements were stringent.

And if my father had tried to steal some of the company's intellectual property by holding back some of that seed for the next year or to sell to his neighbors, we would have expected at best to lose the contract at worst to be sued or prosecuted.

On the rest of our land, we planted corn bought some from the company we grew for and also from several other companies. And the higher yields paid for the cost of the seed.

I have no sympathy for the dishonest farmer described in the story above. He was not an innocent neighbor whose crop was cross-bred. He was trying to get two year's worth of seed for the price of one.

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