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Switchgrass could take ethanol beyond corn

Since President Bush slipped the seldom-heard term "switchgrass" into his 2006 State of the Union Address, the prairie grass has been in vogue.
Arvid Boe, a professor in South Dakota State University's plant science department, shows some switchgrass plants growing in a campus greenhouse in Brookings, S.D.Dirk Lammers / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Since President Bush slipped the seldom-heard term "switchgrass" into his 2006 State of the Union Address, the prairie grass has been in vogue.

Because it's a perennial crop, it needs less fertilizer, recycling nutrients at the end of every season. It also puts down a deep root system, which helps it combat soil erosion, and adds to soil organic carbon every year.

"Switchgrass is a wonderful crop for the soil and environment," said Anna Rath, vice president of commercial development for California energy crop company Ceres Inc.

Switchgrass will now be the focus of the five-year research and development collaboration between South Dakota State University and Ceres — an attempt to maintain and build on the plant's positive attributes while working to boost its yield.

Switchgrass, a native prairie grass tapped as a potential feedstock for ethanol, is a hardy plant that's disease resistant and drought tolerant, said Arvid Boe, a professor in SDSU's plant science department.

Ceres, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., also is working to develop commercial varieties of forage sorghum, miscanthus and energy cane for use as energy crops.

Energy companies moving from corn-based to cellulosic ethanol will benefit from developing a portfolio of various feedstocks, said Rath.

Biorefineries may want to choose multiple crops — even within the same geographic areas — to vary harvest times and mitigate risks of diseases, pests and drought conditions, Rath said.

South Dakota State, which also has researchers working with prairie cordgrass and little bluestem, has had a grass breeding program since the late 1940s. The school has been working with native grasses since the 1960s. But earlier projects focused on the grasses' use as forage in pastures and wildlife habitats.

"Now we are sort of changing our focus here and concentrating more on just biomass yield," Boe said.

Kevin Kephart, the university's vice president for research, said SDSU was ahead of the game when Bush raised switchgrass' profile because researchers working two decades ago anticipated the plant's day would someday come.

"We had a valuable breeding program and pool of germ plasm for switchgrass, and so that level of research was maintained at SDSU," he said. "It went away at other institutions."

Researchers will begin by identifying germ classes that appear to have the potential of developing high yields. The process will involve evaluating different genotypes under different growing conditions.

"Since we're thinking about a pretty wide area here, it means that we have to evaluate materials in different locations around the state and maybe even in other adjacent states," Boe said.