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What is Switchgrass?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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Switchgrass is a tall grass native to the American Midwest. It is also known as tall panic grass, blackbent, Wobsqua grass, and thatchgrass. Switchgrass is used for a wide range of applications and has been notably mentioned as a possible source of biomass for fuels such as ethanol.

Switchgrass is a hardy perennial grass that grows during the warmer months of the year, reaching heights of between 2-6 feet (0.6-1.8m). Although native to North America, it was greatly depleted in past centuries, as it was burned and cleared to make room for farmland. It has become popular again and is now widely planted throughout the United States. Switchgrass can grow in most parts of the United States, including in swampland, on plains, on the seashore, and alongside streams. It is fairly drought resistant, making it ideal for much of the central part of the country.

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Switchgrass makes a good forage crop, and many people encourage its growth to feed cattle or horses. It is sometimes grown in order to be harvested and turned into pellets to be used as a food supplement for livestock. It also provides an easy habitat for a number of insects and ground birds, and so is often used to help reclaim wildlife areas. Because of its adaptability, fast growth, and drought-resistant nature, switchgrass has recently been mentioned on numerous occasions as a likely candidate for a nation-wide fuel crop. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush mentioned switchgrass in the context of being used for ethanol production to help wean the United States from its dependence on foreign oil.

Proponents of using switchgrass for fuel production point out that it can be grown virtually everywhere, grows quickly, and as a result of its root system, keeps the soil in which it grows quite nutrient-rich. Some projections suggest that for each metric ton of switchgrass used, 100 gallons (380L) of ethanol could be produced. This exceeds most other crops considered for possible ethanol production in terms of straight mass-to-fuel production.

Detractors point to evidence suggesting that the cultivation of switchgrass for use in ethanol results in a net loss. Their numbers reveal that the amount of fossil fuel required to cultivate the switchgrass exceeds the amount of fuel generated, making it a non-solution. This is an area that is hotly debated, with experts on both sides bringing forth evidence to support their perspective.

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