March 2008
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Focus of Alternative Energy Research Turns to Biomass

By  Alvin Benn

As America looks more and more toward alternate fuel sources, the buzzword these days is 16 letters long— lignocellulosics.

  AU Energy Crops Professor David Bransby (second from right) describes the benefits of using switchgrass as a source of bioenergy to a group that includes U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL; State Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre; then-AU President Ed Richardson and Acting Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Doug Faulkner during a legislative and media bioenergy briefing and demonstration at the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s E.V. Smith Research Center in Shorter on Feb 23, 2006.
That potential answer to the country’s energy problem comes from wood, agriculture residues, water plants, grasses and other plant substance.

Auburn University (AU) has been actively involved in ways to ease the nation’s worries over the high cost of petroleum by finding alternate means to help power vehicles and heat homes.

One of the main focuses today is on switchgrass— a warm season grass that is one of the dominant species found on prairies in mid-America. It’s also found in other parts of the country, including Alabama.

In late January, a representative from Mendel Biotechnology Inc. conducted a seminar at AU on his company’s new research on biofeedstock development.

Russell Jessup, a plant breeder with Mendel and an affiliate agronomy and soils faculty member at AU, gave an overview of his company’s efforts as well as the role being played by a field research breeding center at the school.

As petroleum prices soared, the spotlight was focused on corn and how it might help offset foreign oil increases by being used as an additive to gasoline.

David Bransby sized up a field of wild switchgrass growing on a test plot at the E.V. Smith Research Center. It was established from seed provided by the USDA Plant Materials Center in Americus, GA, in 1988. These plants are now being used in an effort to improve genetics of switchgrass for energy production.  
Corn seemed to be the best bet for awhile, but questions arose over use of the crop and how that might impact its overall consumption in the country.

"The most important question is how we got started on corn in the first place," said AU professor David Bransby, a national leader in efforts to find a possible agricultural solution to the energy crisis.

Interviewed by Cooperative Farming News shortly before Jessup began his seminar with a group of AU agronomy students, Bransby went into the history of the "corn story."

"We were producing too much corn for the domestic and international market so we said ‘Okay, what do we do with these surpluses?’"

That led to one suggestion that American farmers take a page from yesteryear when corn was an important ingredient in the production of moonshine whiskey.

Crushing lots of corn into non-drinkable liquid is being used as an additive to reduce the amount of gasoline needed to fuel vehicles.

It’s called ethanol and has been popular from coast to coast— usually representing 15 percent of the fuel pumped into cars and trucks.

Bransby said ethanol may be fine for awhile, but using all that corn appears to produce another problem.

"That’s not the way to deal with the problems we’re facing today," he said during the interview. "We got into corn and ethanol to solve a crop surplus problem, not to solve an energy problem. We’ve been stumbling along ever since."

As a result of the sudden increase in using corn to make ethanol, production fell for other traditional uses, pushing the price of corn up and, said Bransby, "everybody’s hurting."

  President Bush announced during the 2007 State of the Union Address his “20 in 10” (20% reduction in gasoline use within 10 years) policy. Some concern was expressed about its feasibility. President Bush invited five experts – including AU’s David Bransby, second to the right of Bush - from the cellulosic biofuel sector and four from the hybrid car sector to the White House for their independent opinions on this issue. The rationale was that these two groups of technologies would be able to achieve “20 in 10.” The meeting took place on Jan 23, 2007, in the Roosevelt Room which is just off the Oval Office in the West Wing. All nine experts independently said the U.S. could achieve this goal if proper focus was developed.
"We feed corn to our chickens, beef and other animals," he said. "They all need it. Washington is in a bit of a flap these days about what’s been happening."

Because of the corn conflict, attention in the past year or so has turned to the biomass market. Bransby believes it could be an answer to current problems until something better comes along. "We have piles of biomass we can use right now," he said. "The problem is we don’t have the technology for commercial use. I do believe it won’t be long before we are able to develop such a use and switchgrass certainly is one of the options."

When President Bush mentioned switchgrass in his State of the Union speech last year, people began looking into what it is and how it might improve the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

In a paper written about the subject, Bransby defined switchgrass as being familiar to farmers in prairie states, but didn’t leave out the South, especially Alabama.

"It is also found on the prairie soils in the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi," he said in his paper. "Many people do not realize natural vegetation of the Black Belt was grassland."

Because switchgrass is native to Alabama, Bransby said, it is resistant to many pests and plant diseases and is capable of producing high yields with very low applications of fertilizer.

For that reason, he said, the need for chemicals to grow switchgrass is relatively low.

"Switchgrass is also very tolerant of poor soils, flooding and drought, which are widespread agricultural problems in the Southeast," Bransby said.

If used to produce energy, he continued, switchgrass will reduce the risk of global warming by replacing fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and oil.

When fossil fuels are burned, carbon is removed from below ground, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That produces greenhouse gas and increases the risk of global warming.

"In contrast, switchgrass removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporates it into plant tissue both above and below the ground," Bransby said.

If switchgrass doesn’t pan out, Bransby said Alabama and other Southeastern states have something that’s at times taken for granted— trees.

"We’ve got more wood than we know what to do with,’ he said. "In the last seven years, we’ve seen three huge pulp mills close. Many of our plants are outdated. They can produce pulp and paper more cheaply down in Brazil now."

The downturn in America’s housing industry has resulted in a huge increase in the amount of available wood, Bransby said. For that reason, those who are looking at alternate fuel sources might take a gander at wood.

"Wood chips, for instance, can be used as biofuel," he said. "We’ve got huge amounts of it in this country. Before we get into switchgrass, there are other types of fuel sources out there."

America has been a capitalist country since its creation more than two centuries ago, Bransby noted, and, for that reason, he believes efforts are well under way to help solve the energy crisis.

"Companies compete with one another in a capitalist system," he said. "If one company comes up with something worthwhile, they’re not going to tell the market until they’re ready. There’s a lot going on under the radar screen. I think we’re going to have some big surprises in the next few years."

Until that happens, Bransby said, switchgrass, corn and other ideas will be used to try and put a dent in foreign oil dependency.

The bottom line in switchgrass and other fuel alternatives, he said, is the cost factor and that is likely to determine whether it succeeds or fails.

"We must demonstrate the process of using switchgrass for energy can be profitable for energy producers, farmers and consumers of energy," he said.

Finding a solution to the continuing energy crisis around the world won’t happen overnight, Bransby believes.

"We must recognize fossil fuels will be our main energy base for many years and bioenergy from switchgrass is not intended to compete with these valuable resources, but rather, to complement them by softening their environmental impact," he said.

That means switchgrass, wood and other agricultural possibilities will never be the end-all to the world’s energy crisis.

But, as Bransby believes, something is better than nothing and, as long as research continues, a suitable answer may be around the corner one day.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.