Ardmore, OK — Watching grass grow is tedious, but researchers in the Oklahoma Panhandle say they’ll stare at their switchgrass — all 1,000 acres of it — until they know whether they’ve found a commercially viable source of biofuel.
The site is billed as the largest such project in the world as scientists try to determine if making ethanol from switchgrass is cost effective. The goal is to determine whether small-scale experiments of using the tall, thin plant native to the Great Plains to make ethanol can be duplicated on a large scale.
And if so, whether farmers and others involved in its production could make a profit.
Supporters acknowledge that cellulosic ethanol is likely years away from commercial use, especially at the level of traditional corn-based ethanol. But they believe it could help expand the industry. Ethanol, an alcohol obtained from the fermentation of sugars and starches, is used as an additive to or a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.
The $2.2 million experiment, a project of the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center that is being led by the Ardmore-based Noble Foundation, began last year with the planting of switchgrass on three fields near Guymon, a town 100 miles north of Amarillo, Texas. The grass will help feed a biorefinery planned in nearby southwest Kansas.
The idea of using switchgrass to make ethanol isn’t new, but the scope of the project is unique.
“We think that we can really serve as a catalyst to bring all the players around the table and the 1,000 acres really is the calling card,” said Billy Cook, senior vice president and division director for the Noble Foundation’s agricultural division.
“We’re not going to have a single solution to our energy deficit. It’s going to take all the players. Some will be more successful than others, but everybody’s got a place at the table right now.”
Unlike corn, switchgrass doesn’t need to be replanted each year. It also takes less tractor fuel and fertilizer to produce, can be grown on marginal land and doesn’t require as much water.
But perhaps most important, advocates say, is that switchgrass isn’t used for food. That means it wouldn’t drive up grocery prices, which has been a sticking point in the wide-scale production of corn-based ethanol.
A spokesman for an industry trade group calls the use of cell-based feedstocks — such as switchgrass — in ethanol as a “logical evolutionary step.” Cellulose, the main ingredient in a plant cell’s walls, is the most common organic compound in the world.
“Grain-based ethanol is not going anywhere,” said Matt Hartwig of the Washington, D.C.-based Renewable Fuels Association. “Ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks won’t replace it, but will add to it and make it a larger industry.”
The nation’s renewable fuel standard ensures demand for ethanol. In 2007, the Energy and Independence Security Act passed by Congress called for 11.1 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline this year, with that number rising to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Hartwig said that standard caps the amount of ethanol levels that can be met from corn at 15 billion gallons in 2015. By 2022, 16 billion gallons have to come from cellulosic feedstocks.
Hartwig said the type of feedstocks used in production of cellulosic biofuels could differ by region. While switchgrass would be viable in the Great Plains, wood chips could be used in the Pacific Northwest.
“That makes sense,” he said. “That’s part of the allure of this.”
In June 2008, Panhandle farmer Curtis Raines planted the 1,000 acres, using four types of switchgrass seeds.
Some of the acreage was watered, some was not; some seeds were planted in fallow fields, others in fields where wheat was recently harvested.
The successful grass stands are now 3 to 3½ feet tall, and researchers likely won’t cut the grass this year. In the first year after planting, about a quarter to a third of the switchgrass stand’s eventual yield can be harvested. That number jumps to about two-thirds after the second year and 100 percent after the third year, which would be 2011.
Abengoa Bioenergy Corp., the North American division of a company based in Spain, plans to start construction early next year on a $300 million biorefinery in Hugoton, Kan., about 35 miles from Guymon. Completion is expected by early 2012.
Cook said three varieties of the switchgrass proved successful in the Panhandle plots and good stands were found in both irrigated and non-irrigated fields.
Raines does the day-to-day maintenance on the fields, while research programs supervisor Shawn Norton and other Noble Foundation researchers frequently make the 360-mile one-way trip from Ardmore to Guymon to monitor progress on the 1,000 acres. Smaller switchgrass test plots are in Ardmore.
“On this large of acreage, we really didn’t know what to expect,” Cook said. “We’ve seen complete stand failures in some situations and 100 percent stand establishments in others. We’re pretty comfortable that we’ve got a pretty good handle on it and we’re learning more as we go.”