Keep switchgrass in mind for biomass uses

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — Camelina isn’t the only alternative biomass crop that makes sense in this area.

Ernst Conservation Seeds, based in Meadville, Pa., is pursuing development of markets for warm season grasses that can be used as biomass, with special emphasis on varieties that can work in this region, according to the Dan Arnett, the company’s biomass coordinator.

“Warm season grasses and switchgrass won’t make anyone rich, but they can sure be part of the solution,” Arnett said.

Switchgrass, for example, can be grown on marginal soils, is efficient in using water and nutrients, and can be harvested with protocols and equipment already familiar to northwest Pennsylvania farmers.

Challenges for the crop include shattering farmers’ row-crop mentality, patience in the years it takes to develop a good stand, herbicide use and marketing.

Promotion

Though still in the experimental and research phases, Ernst has promoted the crop and currently has 4,000 acres in production.

“Interesting, though, is that we didn’t take row crop land out of production to do it,” Arnett said. All those acres were picked up from marginal land including old pasture fields, he said.

Markets

The crop can be marketed to several outlets, including those who would use it for mulching, mushroom or greenhouse substrate, or briquettes for heating and power systems.

A coal-fired power plant in Joliet, Ill., burned an entire truckload of the briquettes — 24 tons of material — in about six minutes, Arnett said.

Despite its short life, however, the grass-based fuel is valuable to the company for its ability to help clean up sulfur emissions.

Another interesting use for the grass is for dairy bedding, Arnett said.

“I’ve heard nothing but positives about it,” he said.

Biofuels

The future of switchgrass production points toward advanced biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol produced from the grass.

Statistics show a 2-acre field of switchgrass can produce enough energy to heat the average American home for an entire year.

“This stuff holds potential as a significant feedstock for alternative fuels and energy,” Arnett said.

“We’re not quite there yet, with some significant challenges. It always seems to be about 2 years away. But if we wait for someone else to do the research and build the [processing facility], we’ll have already missed the boat.”

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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