Switchgrass ethanol is an ethanol biofuel created from crops of switchgrass. Unlike traditional grasses, switchgrass can grow up to 10 feet during one growing season. It is thick, with stalks that resemble wood rather than grass. This distinctive plant also captures solar energy which can be useful in converting the grass to ethanol.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other government departments throughout the world, is utilizing the power of switchgrass for ethanol biofuel production. The grass can be grown on plots of land that have, over the years, been depleted of vitamins and nutrients by other crops. Its deep root system also makes growing switchgrass in areas of drought more effective.
Scientists are working with the genetics of various strains of switchgrass to develop a form that contains all the best features for ethanol production. The most predominant features being modified in this way include the hardiness of grass crops and the overall yields during a given growing period. With future development, a type of switchgrass could be created that uses far less fertilizer and nitrogen, while yielding the best possible growth for switchgrass ethanol production.
While sugarcane ethanol has been researched in the past as an effective alternative to corn-based ethanol, the yield is often limited to less than 20 gallons (75.7 liters) of ethanol per ton (907 kilograms) of sugar cane. Switchgrass, on the other hand, yields up to 100 gallons (378.5 liters) of switchgrass ethanol per ton (907 kilograms) of dried grass. Essentially, five times more ethanol biofuel could be produced from one ton (907 kilograms) of switchgrass than of sugar cane.
Another benefit to producing switchgrass ethanol is the lower cost of production. Currently, corn is the most utilized feedstock for ethanol production. Producing ethanol from corn is thought to use as much energy as it puts out in pure fuel. Ethanol biofuels manufactured from switchgrass tend to yield five times more energy than it takes to produce the fuel, which could mean lower production costs and lower ethanol costs at the pump. When the total cost of the machinery used to plant, cultivate, and harvest corn is taken into consideration, the yield difference jumps to 20 times higher for switchgrass ethanol over corn ethanol.
Some researchers believe there is also a hidden benefit to the production of switchgrass ethanol. Corn crops require leveling the land, in order to plant corn crops. Planting switchgrass essentially returns the land to a more natural, prairie-like state that birds and smaller animals can use for food and habitat.