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ACS National Meeting to Hold Biofuels Symposium; Paper to be Presented on Sustainability of Switchgrass as Ethanol Source

Sustainability of energy, food and water is the featured theme of the 233rd national meeting of the American Chemical Society, which began today in Chicago and runs through Thursday.

Within that larger structure, challenges and advances specific to biofuels are featured in a three-day symposium: “Agricultural Biomass, Biobased Products, and Biofuels,” March 27-29. Topics range from novel bioenergy sources to new processes that make the conversion of biomass to fuel more efficient.

Tuesday’s session will begin with a presentation by Gale Buchanan, Ph.D., the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, who is scheduled to discuss the benefits of renewable energy and government efforts to speed the commercialization of alternative and renewable energy sources.

Among the many papers presented will be a study by the USDA that confirms the sustainability of switchgrass for future US energy needs. The USDA recently completed a five-year field trial, conducted among 10 farms in the Northern Great Plains, to evaluate the energy balance for switchgrass grown for cellulosic ethanol. The study confirmed that switchgrass can be grown in a sustainable manner for biofuel production to meet future US energy demands, according to Marty Schmer of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Lincoln, Neb.

The USDA paper, which will be presented on Tuesday, 27 March, concludes that switchgrass would produce considerably more energy in the form of biofuels than the petroleum inputs required for switchgrass management.

The presentation will come in the wake of discussion over concerns that current switchgrass yields in some projects are low, while costs are high.

Farmers in four southern Iowa counties who have been growing switchgrass as part of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project found that it cost them approximately $60 a ton to grow, harvest and bale the grass, with an average yield of about 3 tons per acre, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.

Transportation costs and profit margins will add another $55 to $65 a ton, according to one of the farmers in the project, resulting in a price of $115 to $125/ton.

Those costs are on the high end of a range of costs determined by earlier research at Iowa State University (Duffy and Nanhou). The Iowa State study estimated the costs of production for seven different scenarios and four different yield levels.

Their estimated cost to produce switchgrass ranged from $54 to $149 per ton, depending on the type of production system used. The cheapest method involved high yields (6 tons per acre) using frost-seeding on grassland. Low yields (1.5 tons per acre) using spring-seeding on cropland resulted in the highest costs of production.

Another paper at the ACS biofuels symposium will describe a anaerobic digestor that converts food wastes—which account for 16% percent of the materials going to landfill— into hydrogen and methane gas. If converted to electricity, the biogas produced from one ton of food waste is enough to power 10 homes in the United States per day, the researchers will say.

(A hat-tip to Wim!)




Glad to see this. I plan to plant ten Switchgrass rhizomes on my Wyoming land fairly soon.

Eventually, I will have the necessary feedstock to expand and maybe retail as the opportunity develops.


So if you have 6 tonnes of switchgrass how much ethanol could you get out of it with cellulosic techniques that are available today? How much syn-fuel could you get from the same 6 tonnes if you BTL'd (a Fischer-Tropsche process, I assume) it?


The USDA is presenting a paper. A paper is not a demonstration.

Patty O

Well corn will yeild about 118 gallons ethanol pr acre. Sugar gives about 150. I figure switchgrass is probably somewhere between 50 and 80 gallons per ton. At $2.50 a gallon, they might be able to make it profitable.

open wheel rick

As a fan of IndyCar racing, I read the recent article here about 100% ethanol (E100) powered Honda racing engines. However, shouldn't bio-fuels be thought of as "new carbon" and fossil fuel be thought of as "old carbon." Because CO-2 emissions are the real issue, "new carbon" (bio-fuels) should be more desirable than "old carbon" (fossil fuels). Nonetheless, carbon emissions are carbon emissions. Could the "old vs. new" view be changed by developing methods for CO2 capture and storage (CCS)? For the long term, is Hydrogen the answer?


Switchgrass is grown now to preserve the soil. The government pays farmers to grow more than 30 million acres of it. At 100 gallons per ton and 10 tons per acre, that could be 30 of the 150 billion gallons of fuel used each year. Paying to preserve the soil and getting a payback from cellulose ethanol at the same time sounds good to me.


1) If corn ethanol is so great why is it being subsidized by $6 billion per year ($36 now proposed) in the US alone ?
2) In fact, why are the subsidies per gallon of corn ethanol 90 times the subsidies for a
gallon of gasoline ? I am not for any subsidies.
3) 20% of U.S. corn is being converted into 5 billion gallons of ethanol that represents
only 1% of U.S. gas use ! If 100% of U.S. corn, ie, ALL our corn were converted
into ethanol, this would represent only 7% of U.S. gas use. What are your plans to reduce
daily gas use by 93% ? Are you prepared to tell everyone that there will be no corn left
for food or tortillas ?
4) Why are the enormous environmental impacts of corn ethanol production not being taken into
account ?
5) Why do you keep ignoring that corn production causes more soil erosion than any other
crop grown ?
6) Why do you consistently ignore that corn production uses more nitrogen fertilizer than
any other crop grown ?
7 Why do you ignore that nitrogen runoff from the corn fields is the prime cause of the
dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ?
8) Why do you ignore that corn production uses more insecticides than any other crop
grown ?
9) Why do you blatantly ignore that corn production uses more herbicides than any other
crop grown ?
10) Why do you ignore that more than 1,700 gallons of water are required to produce 1
gallon of ethanol ?
11) Why do you ignore that 6 to 12 gallons of sewage effluent are released per gallon of
corn ethanol produced ?
12) Why do you ignore that enormous quantities of carbon dioxide are produced, including
the large quantity of fossil energy used in production, large quantities of carbon
dioxide are released during fermentation, and when the soil is tilled soil organic matter
is exposed and oxidized ?
13) Why do you irresponsibly ignore that all the above speeds global warming instead of
reducing it ?
14)Why do you ignore that related to the total operation, including the burning of the
ethanol, the air, water & soil pollution problem are significant ?
15) Why do you ignore that several published scientific papers form UC Berkeley & Cornell
University (not pamphlets printed by the DOE, USDA or corn lobby pundits after taxpayers money)
show that one burns 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent in fossil fuels to produce 1 gallon of gasoline
equivalent as ethanol from corn ?
16) Why do you ignore that when this corn ethanol is burned as a gasoline additive or
fuel, its use amounts to burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once ?
17) Why do you ignore that the fuel efficiency of those cars that burn corn ethanol is
effectively halved ?
18) Why do you ignore that the widespread
use of corn ethanol will cause manifold damage to air, surface water, soil and aquifers ?
19) Why do you ignore that the overall energy balance of corn conversion to ethanol
demonstrates that 65% of the input energy is lost during the conversion ?
20) Why do you ignore that carbon dioxide sequestration by corn is nullified when corn
ethanol is burned, and there will be additional carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and
sulfur oxide emissions from the fossil fuels used to produce the ethanol ?
21) What part of the above is not clear ?
22) Why do you ignore that the scenario for switchgrass, biodiesel & other biofuels is similar, if not worse when the total energy cycle is accounted for(switchgrass & biomass) ?
23) If you dont' understand 16) & 17) above, please mail me a $1,000 bill, and I'll mail back $500 and a free explanation of the laws of thermodynamics (with no guarantee that you will ever understand them).

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