Switching to switchgrass – will DOE and USDA funding turn switchgrass into a Rockstar biofuel feedstock?

September 27, 2020 |

Australian rock band AC/DC was on a roll with several record hits like ‘Back in Black’ and ‘For Those About to Rock We Salute You’ in the early 1980s, until that is, the ‘Flick of the Switch’ in 1983 that some rock critics say was the beginning of the end for them and a “commercial disappointment”.

So as we look for better biofuel feedstocks, we look at switchgrass because of new U.S. Department of Energy AND U.S. Department of Agriculture funding to study it for biofuels. Could it be the next biofuel feedstock Rockstar? Or will it be a commercial disappointment?

In today’s Digest, the latest on where switchgrass stands as a feedstock for biofuels, the recent $13 million DOE grant and the $10 million USDA grant to study it further for biofuels, and more.

DOE’s $13M grant

In Alabama, several research groups at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are passionate about producing crops that can be used as biofuel and now with the help of a newly awarded Department of Energy (DOE) grant, they can move one step closer to this goal.

The grant is part of a DOE project that will provide $68 million in funding over five years for basic research aimed at making more productive and resilient crops that can be used to produce biofuel.

Photo credit: Robert Goodwin, Michigan State University

Faculty Investigator Jeremy Schmutz of HudsonAlpha is a member of a team of researchers from across the United States that have been working together for more than a decade to genetically characterize and improve the biomass production of switchgrass. The collaborative research team is led by Thomas Juenger, PhD, of The University of Texas at Austin. Kankshita Swaminathan, PhD, of HudsonAlpha, joins the group to bring her team’s expertise in plant gene editing to the project.

In 2007, the United States set a goal of having 36 billion gallons of biofuel production by 2022,” Juenger said. “Using current biofuels to meet that goal would put pressure on the global food supply and require more water, fertilizer and other energy inputs compared to switchgrass.”

“One of the most exciting aspects of our project is the diverse research perspectives on the team – a group that includes ecologists, evolutionary biologists, genomic and data scientists, microbial ecologists, physiologists and plant breeders,” Juenger said.  “The broad perspectives provided by the team have been critical for developing creative solutions to improving switchgrass.”

What is so great about switchgrass for biofuels?

First, it’s seemingly everywhere if you live in the U.S. or Canada – switchgrass is a grass that grows in much of North America and is commonly used for livestock feed and erosion control. So why is it so great for biofuels? According to HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, it has several desirable qualities such as deep roots that allow it to access nutrients easily from a variety of soils, and a higher tolerance for extreme water conditions, such as drought or prolonged periods of rain.

There are several varieties of switchgrass based upon the climate and environment in which they grow. For example, the southern lowland switchgrasses are tall and thick-stemmed, while the northern upland switchgrasses are short and thin-stemmed.

For biofuel production, tall and hearty switchgrass is desirable to produce the most biomass per plant. The research groups aim to produce a variety of switchgrass that is high-producing like the southern plants but has cold tolerance like the northern plants.

By breeding switchgrass that can thrive across different climates, the research group hopes to meet the challenge of creating a biofuel crop that is not only sustainable and clean but can also be grown on lands that are not traditionally useful for growing food. The ability of a biofuel crop to grow on otherwise uninhabitable land is important in the quest to increase biofuel crop production without jeopardizing land used for commercial farming.

Planting switchgrass in common gardens at ten diverse sites across the United States allows the research group to study how genetics and the environment interact. This helps the researchers determine the genes or genetic changes responsible for desirable switchgrass traits. Such traits include high biomass production, cold tolerance, sustainability, and a high success rate of plant establishment from seeds.

“We hope to be able to solve long standing issues with switchgrass crop improvement by applying our large-scale genomic efforts,” Schmutz says. “Improved switchgrass varieties will bring greater cold tolerance and increased yield for biofuel feedstocks for this highly sustainable perennial crop.”

The group will identify genes that confer these key traits in switchgrass and use Swaminathan’s expertise in targeted editing and plant breeding to make varieties of switchgrass that will produce the most biomass yet will survive in colder climates.

“Over the last decade this team has used the latest technology in genomics to explore the effect of genetics and environment in switchgrass and have identified genes that likely influence many desirable traits,” says Swaminathan. “It is a really exciting time to test these hypotheses using recent advances in plant biotechnology and genome editing. This will allow us to explore the precise function of genes of interest and help inform directed breeding for more resilient, high yielding plants.”

This is no small project either with collaboration happening all across North America. Researchers from the following institutions are also Co-PIs and Collaborators on the UT Austin led DOE grant: University of Missouri, Argonne National Laboratory, Washington State University, Michigan State University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, USDA-ARS, University of Florida, South Dakota State University, National Renewal Energy Lab, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, USDA-PMS, Oklahoma State University, DOE Joint Genome Institute, Colegio de Postgraduados (Mexico), Inst. Nac. de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias (Mexico), International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center (Mexico).

USDA $10M grant for switchgrass going beyond biofuels

It’s not just the DOE getting in on the switchgrass action, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture too. West Virginia University is spearheading the development of a perennial multi-feedstock production system that is sustainable and economically feasible for the region with the help a $10 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

At the heart of the project is the establishment of the Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass for Value-Added Products Consortium, a regional group of universities, industry partners, national laboratories and governmental agencies interested in advancing the science and practice of sustainable bioproducts.

“This region has over 10 million acres of mined and marginal agricultural lands that can be reclaimed to produce biomass crops without competing with food crop production for resources,” said Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “Additionally, timber harvest in the area produces more than eight million dry tons of residue annually and will be a foundation for the multi-feedstock biomass.”

Plans include utilizing some of the mined and marginal lands to grow switchgrass, a hardy, self-seeding perennial crop, and hybrid willow, a short-rotation woody crop, which can benefit the land, economy and biomass feedstock production.

“We want to create a circular system of renewable resources where some of the products that are produced from the harvested biomass can be utilized in stormwater management, stream restoration and acid mine drainage restoration which enhances soil and water quality and creates a continuous, sustainable system that is both environmentally and economically feasible,” Wang explained.

When it comes to maintaining a sustainable feedstock supply, the biomass crops will be blended with logging residue wood chips to create a massive regional multi-feedstock biomass supply chain with minimized costs, consistent quality and continuous supply.

That biomass feedstock supply will potentially help create more than 10 news businesses within the bioproduct supply chain and produce value-added products such as bioadhesives, biochemicals, resins for 3D printing, bicarbonate nanomaterials, and other carbon products such as activated carbon and biochar.

“With the knowledge and expertise on our team, we’ll be able to make a significant contribution to further development of the sustainable bioproducts sector,” Wang said.

Consortium partners include Penn State University, Virginia Tech, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia State University, Eastern WV Community and Technical College, U.S. Department of Energy Idaho National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S.Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory and Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Various industry partners will also be involved in the project for commercial scale development and demonstrations including Double-A-Willow, Allstar Ecology, Ernst Biomass, Lignetics, Gas Technology Institute, Norris Thermal Technologies, Torresak and Eastern Biochar.

Switchgrass leads the pack in biofuel feedstock study

Just this August, a new study led by Colorado State University showed that switchgrass is a leading candidate for the sustainable production of plant material.

The research team used modeling to simulate switchgrass cultivation, cellulosic biofuel production, and carbon capture and storage, tracking ecosystem and carbon flows. Scientists then compared this modeling to alternative ways to store carbon on the land, including growing forest or grassland.

Carbon capture and storage technology is being used by at least one facility in Illinois that is processing corn as a conventional biofuel to create ethanol, but these systems are not yet widespread. As part of the study, researchers created models to simulate what this would look like at a cellulosic biofuel refinery.

What we found is that around half of the carbon in the switchgrass that comes into the refinery becomes a byproduct that would be available for carbon capture and storage,” said Field. The resulting byproduct streams of high-purity carbon dioxide would not require much separation or clean-up before being stored underground.

The research team analyzed three contrasting U.S. case studies and found that on land where farmers or land managers were transitioning out of growing crops or maintaining pastures for grazing, cultivating switchgrass for cellulosic ethanol production had a per-hectare mitigation potential comparable to reforestation and several-fold greater than grassland restoration.

Using switchgrass can be particularly helpful in parts of the country where planting more trees is not an option.

“In the Great Plains, prairie is the more natural cover,” said Field. “Those systems don’t suck up as much carbon as a forest system does. If you start putting biofuels in the mix, they have two-and-a-half times the carbon benefits over grasslands. If you’re in an area where grassland would be the native cover, there’s a clear advantage to using biofuels.”

Field said that the team’s motivation for the study was prompted by several prominent critiques of biofuels. “We wanted to see if we came to the same conclusion or not as the researchers who have been critical of biofuels,” he said.

Our analysis shows that large climate benefits can, in fact, be achieved through biofuels if there is an intent to do so,” said Lee Lynd, a co-author and Paul E. and Joan H. Queneau Distinguished Professor in Environmental Engineering Design at Dartmouth College.

Bottom Line

The problem with switchgrass is it still seems to be in the early stages in terms of getting it to commercialization, to market, to the end game as we don’t really hear about facilities processing switchgrass or biofuel producers touting their switchgrass-based biofuels…yet. The fact that the DOE and USDA are investing millions into furthering switchgrass as a potential biofuel feedstock on a larger scale is a good sign and while it’s not yet an AC/DC hit like ‘Back in Black’, we don’t think it will be a commercial disappointment like ‘Flick of the Switch’…but first it has to get to that commercial scale for us to see what really happens.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tags: , ,

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.