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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.

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