It was this “cellulosic” ethanol that President Bush spoke about when he proposed adding $150 million to next year’s federal budget for research into using switchgrass. Raab says switchgrass is appealing; for one thing, an acre of land can produce four times the mass of switchgrass as of corn. And switchgrass is far hardier and easier to grow than corn. “The energy balance for ethanol from switchgrass is tremendously better,” he says. “It doesn’t require all the fertilizer, all the irrigation, all the energy intensity that corn does.”
Scientists estimate that ethanol could replace about 30 percent of the demand for gasoline without affecting food production. Right now, ethanol, mixed with gasoline, accounts for only about 2 percent of fuel in U.S. cars. Switchgrass can be grown on marginal land that couldn’t support food farming. And experiments have shown that an acre of land can produce from 6 to 15 tons of switchgrass, yielding about 100 gallons of ethanol per ton.
Edenspace Systems of Dulles, VA, is also trying to genetically engineer corn and switchgrass to be better sources of ethanol. “It’s clearly an idea that has been kicking around,” says Ken Keegstra, director of the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory at Michigan State University, who recently became an advisor to Agrivida. “I think whoever gets it implemented in a practical way has a real winner on their hands.”
It will take time before anyone is putting switchgrass-derived gas in their car, though. So far, Agrivida has designed enzymes on the computer and grown them in bacteria, but they still have to test how the enzymes act in plants. Raab hopes to begin field trials in late 2007, in order to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start marketing his corn in 2010. Adapting the method to switchgrass would require an additional two or three years of academic research, Raab says.