Switchgrass and Virginia Tech

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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Switchgrass and Virginia Tech

Crop and Soil Environmental News, October 2007

Author: David Parrish, Professor, Crop & Soil Environmental Science

When President Bush suggested in his 2006 State of the Union Message that the country should be developing switchgrass and other biofuels sources to help us get over our “addiction” to oil, there was (unknown to the President) a direct connection to Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences.  The President mentioned switchgrass – a native, prairie-type grass – because it has been the most widely studied biofuels species in this country for several years; and the history of its study as a biofuels crop begins at Virginia Tech!  (By the way, switchgrass has figured prominently in recent articles in National Geographic and Wired magazine!)  Why all the buzz about switchgrass?

In 1985, the US Department of Energy (DOE) began funding research on non-woody species that might be used to produce fuels. The research – coordinated through Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) – was called the Herbaceous Energy Crops Program (HECP).  Virginia Tech was one of five original HECP subcontractors.  The others were at Auburn, Cornell, Texas A&M, and a private research firm in Ohio.

The first phase of the HECP effort – from 1985 to 1990 – called for screening species on marginal sites, i.e., not prime agricultural land, to see which plants might hold the most promise for biomass production.  When the five subcontractors met at ORNL in early 1985 for coordination of efforts, each came with a list of candidate species that they intended to look at in their locale.  There was little overlap between those lists.  Therefore, it was decided that all subcontractors should include a “benchmark” species to provide some comparison of productivity across diverse locations.  The benchmark species identified was switchgrass.

Switchgrass was brought to the table at those meetings by Virginia Tech, which had included the species in its original proposal.  Switchgrass was written into Tech’s proposal largely because Dr. Dale Wolf (now retired from Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences) had years of experience with it: experience that stretched back to his boyhood days in south-central Nebraska, and that included research on it in Wisconsin and Connecticut. 

Switchgrass emerged from HECP’s 5-year screening phase as the overall most productive species tested.  As a result, DOE decided to concentrate on switchgrass as a “model species” for the next 10 years of its herbaceous biofuels research funding.  Virginia Tech (along with Auburn and Texas A&M) remained involved with the DOE-funded agronomic research, providing data on yields and recommendations for sustainable management.  Through the 1990s, essentially all of the work done on herbaceous energy crops in the US was done with switchgrass. Much of the work that continues to be done – sponsored through both public and private sources – still focuses on switchgrass as the biofuel feedstock; hence the President’s reference to switchgrass and his unintended – but appreciated – compliment to Virginia Tech. 

So, when you hear about switchgrass next time, think about Virginia Tech and CSES.

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