“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Can the Return of Praire Grass Replace Gasoline?

GRASS GAS: Turning fields of switchgrass like this one in northeastern Nebraska into ethanol produces 540 percent more energy than the amount consumed growing the native perennial.

Grass Makes Better Ethanol than Corn Does
Midwestern farms prove switchgrass could be the right crop for producing ethanol to replace gasoline

By David Biello Scientific American

Farmers in Nebraska and the Dakotas brought the U.S. closer to becoming a biofuel economy, planting huge tracts of land for the first time with switchgrass—a native North American perennial grass (Panicum virgatum) that often grows on the borders of cropland naturally—and proving that it can deliver more than five times more energy than it takes to grow it.

Working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the farmers tracked the seed used to establish the plant, fertilizer used to boost its growth, fuel used to farm it, overall rainfall and the amount of grass ultimately harvested for five years on fields ranging from seven to 23 acres in size (three to nine hectares).

Once established, the fields yielded from 5.2 to 11.1 metric tons of grass bales per hectare, depending on rainfall, says USDA plant scientist Ken Vogel. "It fluctuates with the timing of the precipitation,'' he says. "Switchgrass needs most of its moisture in spring and midsummer. If you get fall rains, it's not going to do that year's crops much good."

But yields from a grass that only needs to be planted once would deliver an average of 13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed—in the form of nitrogen fertilizers or diesel for tractors—growing them. "It's a prediction because right now there are no biorefineries built that handle cellulosic material" like that which switchgrass provides, Vogel notes. "We're pretty confident the ethanol yield is pretty close." This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is partially funding the construction of six such cellulosic biorefineries, estimated to cost a total of $1.2 billion. The first to be built will be the Range Fuels Biorefinery in Soperton, Ga., which will process wood waste from the timber industry into biofuels and chemicals. The DOE is providing an initial $50 million to start construction.

"Cost competitive, energy responsible cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or from forestry waste like sawdust and wood chips requires a more complex refining process but it's worth the investment," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said at the Range Fuels facility groundbreaking in November. "Cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than ethanol made from corn."

In fact, Vogel and his team report this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that switchgrass will store enough carbon in its relatively permanent root system to offset 94 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted both to cultivate it and from the derived ethanol burned by vehicles. Of course, this estimate also relies on using the leftover parts of the grass itself as fuel for the biorefinery. "The lignin in the plant cell walls can be burned," Vogel says.

The use of native prairie grasses is meant to avoid some of the other risks associated with biofuels such as reduced diversity of local animal life and displacing food crops with fuel crops. "This is an energy crop that can be grown on marginal land," Vogel argues, such as the more than 35 million acres (14.2 million hectares) of marginal land that farmers are currently paid not to plant under the terms of USDA's Conservation Reserve Program.

But even a native prairie grass needs a helping hand from scientists and farmers to deliver the yields necessary to help ethanol become a viable alternative to petroleum-derived gasoline, Vogel argues. "To really maximize their yield potential, you need to provide nitrogen fertilization," he says, as well as improved breeding techniques and genetic strains. "Low input systems are just not going to be able to get the energy per acre needed to provide feed, fuel and fiber."


  1. Rufus and I are working on a Secret Reactor that makes Regular Grade Leaded Gasoline out of a Foie gras and Caviar Feedstock.

  2. Pita is suing, demanding we include an admixture of 25% Truffles, minimum, to reduce our Fatty Acid Footprint.

  3. rufus has it finished, doug.

    In all seriousness, rufus has been well ahead of the curve on this type stuff, especially switch grass.

    One reason he is so grumpy, ignorance is bliss.

  4. "compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.
    That sure don't fit Rufus's depiction of Ethanol Heaven, apparently bought hook, line, and sinker, by you, so far.
    Whit oth, protests.

  5. But there still aren't any commercially viable cellulosic refineries in buisiness.

  6. He's so grumpy because he's not as self-delusional on his desire to respect W as is Mat, for whom ignorance is, indeed, apparently Bliss.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Hey, gotta buy something with all the pesos.

    Milk sells for less than $3 per gallon, needs hay, dairies, refrigeration and trucking, to get it into Safeway, in individually packaged gallon containers.

    An entire supply chain for human consumption, operating profitably, off the land.
    Would only make sense that bulk fuels stocks could be produced, too.
    At the same price point as retail milk.

  9. I should give credit to Rufus for being bales ahead on this. I'll move it to the top.

  10. Surge plus one year.

    Why you don't quit in the third quarter or walk off the field after 7 innings.

  11. Because, amigo mio, we finally started to utilize the Iraqis.

    Quit segregating their troops from ours, expanding the MITT Teams, which you had said could never succeed.

    We changed course, one year ago.
    Succeeding where you had promised failure, with General P utilizing the indig troops much more effectively. That being the key to success in Anbar and Baghdad.

    Organizing 75,000 Sunni warriors in an Awakening militia to fight in our cause. Despite the protests of the elected Iraqi Government

    We ended the US Policy of defeating the Sunni Tribes and replacing them with elected officials. We surrendered on that part of the Plan, then called it success.

    That's why, we changed course.

    Now, by using the almost 500,000 Islamic warriors that we have funded, trained and organized, in Iraq, we have a chance to succeed.

    Depending, of course, on how success is defined.
    Basra being a called Success, with Sharia Law firmly in place, but violence, almost non-existant.

    Coalition troops withdrawn!
    Success achieved!!
    Victory at Hand!!!

  12. Are we in the fourth quarter?

  13. This administration certainly is, anyway.

  14. Depends upon which Game you're watching.

    Whether one thinks we are in a series of "local conflicts" or a "Global War".

    Whether one sees Islam as a monolithic force, or a series of sub-sects.

    Depends, mostly on what definition of "is" that we are using, today.

  15. I think we should start calling dRat, slick willy. :D

  16. Whether one thinks we are in a series of "local conflicts" or a "Global War".

    I prefer to look at it as the combined defense and diplomatic communities look at it. We are engaged in "region shaping," regardless of the particular approaches taken or rationales offered at any given time.

    In this sense, one thinks not in terms of quarters or innings, but generations.

    And though resources are being shifted ahead to other regions, with the expectation that other regions will be gaining in strategic importance while Near Asia declines, there's plenty, plenty, plenty of life left in the tar babies. You betcha.

  17. Or I should say, plenty, plenty, plenty of sticky left in the tar babies.

  18. Course everybody's prepared to rewrite the Bible and reinvent the wheel come Jan 09. But I don't anticipate, even taking into account the inevitable crises, course corrections of major note.

  19. "Region Shaping"
    a step beyond the
    "Nation Building"

    that we've done so well at

    Onward into the night
    but forget not
    We own the night

  20. Obama Lands Arizona Gov.'s Endorsement
    By Chris Cillizza, The Fix

    Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano will endorse Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign today, according to two sources familiar with the decision.

    Napolitano's endorsement has literal and symbolic significance. As a popular western state governor, she could prove as an effective surrogate for Obama in Nevada's Jan. 19 caucuses.

    Napolitano is also one of a handful of female governors in the country, and her decision to go with Obama could undercut Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's attempts to unify female elected officials behind her candidacy.

    Arizona has traditionally gone for the GOP presidential candidate in past general elections, but it is increasingly becoming a swing state, due at least in part to the large Latino population.

  21. Mr Bush to return to Israel, in May '08.

    Let's see, 120 days, not the 90 I predicted.

    But there will be about 90 days of "success" for him to point to, come May.

    Or the Sauds and the Gulf Arabs proving unable to deliver Hamas, cementing them into the Iranian sphere of influence.

    The Sunni Arabs, though, have plenty of
    Lawyers, Guns & Money

    they can "invest" in a transient treaty

  22. US Would 'Regret' Pakistan Operation
    By CHRIS BRUMMITT – 1 hour ago

    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview published Friday that U.S. troops would be regarded as invaders if they crossed into Pakistan to hunt al-Qaida militants.

    He also said he would resign if opposition parties tried to impeach him after next month's elections.

    Musharraf's remarks in an interview with Singapore's The Straits Times came as police tried to identify a suicide bomber who struck a day earlier in Lahore, killing 24 people and adding to pressure on the former general as he struggles to stay in office eight years after seizing power in military coup.
    Musharraf told The Straits Times U.S. troops would "certainly" be considered invaders if they set foot in the tribal regions.

    "If they come without our permission, that's against the sovereignty of Pakistan. I challenge anybody coming into our mountains. They would regret that day," he said in the interview.

  23. "Region Shaping"
    a step beyond the
    "Nation Building"

    that we've done so well at

    - Rat

    Hey now, that's just mean.

    10 years after the fact and the Albanian Mafia, for one, is coming into possession of a fine little nation courtesy Mme Albright and KFOR.

    I have equally high hopes for Iraq and Afghanistan.

  24. Musharraf told The Straits Times U.S. troops would "certainly" be considered invaders if they set foot in the tribal regions.

    "If they come without our permission, that's against the sovereignty of Pakistan. I challenge anybody coming into our mountains. They would regret that day," he said in the interview.

    Fri Jan 11, 11:21:00 AM EST

    Not a word of untruth in that. Unmentioned is that we've been there all the while.

  25. Musharraf is also under gathering domestic political pressure. The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and the other main opposition grouping are predicted to make gains in the Feb. 18 election. They have vowed to oust Musharraf if they emerge as winners. Musharraf is seen as vulnerable to impeachment over his decision last year to fire Supreme Court judges and suspend the constitution.

    "If that (impeachment) happens, let me assure that I'd be leaving office before they would do anything. If they won with this kind of majority and they formed a government that had the intention of doing this, I wouldn't like to stick around," he said. "I would like to quit the scene."

  26. Would he find exile most comfortable in England, Saudi Arabia or the US?

  27. Iraq or Afghanistan, without the US is going to be, at best, controlled tribalism. Tribalism needs a strong chief. The Shiites hanged a Sunni chief. It will take about 400 years for the Sunnis to forget that one.

  28. "Iraq or Afghanistan, without the US is going to be, at best, controlled tribalism."

    You mean like now?

  29. The fact remains, regardless of what the "world knows", the US could replace Saudi oil supplies with ethanol, within five years.

    Based upon past performance in ethanol production, in America.

    If need be, we could contract some of that ethanol production to Brazil, a more "secure" source than than Saudi Arabia.

    Brazil being both more democratic and more American, without doubt.

  30. The fact remains, regardless of what the "world knows", the US could replace Saudi oil supplies...

    - Rat

    But not al Saud.

  31. The suspect in the death of the Marine Lance Cpl, is the Marine Officer that was under USMC investigation for raping her.

    According to the civilian Sheriff in NC, that annouced that she is dead and in a yet undiscovered "shallow grave".

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. The suspect is not a "Superior Officer" but a Corporal in the Marines.

  34. Exactly, trish.

    The US imports aprox 1,200,000 barrels per day from senor al Saud.

    Those supplies could be replaced, with Americas ethanol, the US gaining independence from the influence that those oil supplies provides them. If that oil is the source of their influence in the US.

  35. We aren't dependent for shit upon Pakistan, but they've been a formal ally since '57, IIRC. I wouldn't lay too much on oil as a rationale anywhere, but upon the Great Game.

  36. No photo yet available of the suspect, his name not printed on the screen, though mentioned by the Sheriff.

    Corporal Warner or Warren

    Corporal Ceasar Warren
    In a black dodge pickup with a
    North Carolina license tag 1522

  37. I agree with that, trish.
    The global-zone of percolating violence, the most current formulation of that Game.

    h/t elijah on that Zeb moniker.

    There are those that post here that disagree. Claiming the Sauds call the tune, due to the influence that those imports provide.

    That influence could have eliminated, with Americas sourcing, if E20 blends had been mandated on 15SEP01. Which easily, in that atmosphere, could have been passed.

    Today the US would have been independent of Gulf oil, if that course had been taken.

  38. We could be independent of Gulf oil with in five years, if that course were taken, today.

  39. Corporal Ceasar Lauren

    is the correct spelling of the suspect's name

  40. "We could be independent of Gulf oil with in five years..."

    If you believe that the motive engine driving us is ME oil, it's worth your while. I don't.

  41. I think it's a pretty flimsy excuse.

  42. I've always kind of liked Musharraf, ever since I remember him being honest and saying something like 'we've got more crap(referring to the people I think) in this country than any country in the world'. A man ought to be patriotic and truthful about one's country. He can come live in Idaho.

  43. "If you believe that the motive engine driving us is ME oil, it's worth your while. I don't."

    It is. That, and bureaucratic inertia.

    Energy independence means that you get to play the game by different rules. It will be a different game.

  44. This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. If you think Billary is an artist, Musharraf puts her to shame.

  46. Great article, Deuce; thanks for posting it. Here is a comment I made on it:

    That 25% number for corn-based ethanol is just Bad Wrong. A modern plant can get 76,000 btu's of ethanol (which, as we've seen, can replace 116,000 btu's of gasoline in the proper blend) + about 20,000 btu's of veg oil/biodiesel while using about 35,000 btu's of nat gas (in process, as well as fertilizer,) and diesel.

    This is a very strong 4:1; and the plants coming online in the next year, or so, will be a lot stronger.


  47. dRat,

    You're going to like this:


  48. Here is a longer article on the study.

    You'll notice that they guy who originally authored those horribly wrong numbers on corn ethanol energy efficiency, also, missed the cellulosic efficiency by a mile.

    By the way, Switchgrass will be much more productive than this when grown in the South Eastern, and Southern U.S. It likes warm weather, and a little water. You could probably expect yiels of at least double, if not triple this from switch grass grown in Fl.

  49. We have a grass out here--Reed's Canary Grass--that came from Europe--that took over all the low wet area, drainages, and so forth. I thought it was native til told otherwise by the county agent. Makes great hay and grows like hell. You can get out of the car and walk into it and disappear on my place. The nesting birds like it too. It's been there all my days. Have never cut any of it. Great at holding the soil too.

  50. I've read about that stuff, Bob. It would be interesting to know what the yield (ton/acre) would be out there.

  51. I think the biggest news is nanosolar's new manufacturing plant that produces photovoltaics for .30@watt and sells them for$1.00@ watt. To grasp the significance of this its helpful to note that the cheapest way to make electricity is with coal for $2.1@watt plus transportation & cleanup. Once full production starts early next year, NanoSolar's plant will create 430 megawatts’ worth of solar cells a year—more than the combined total of every other solar plant in the U.S.--and about the output of a meduim sized coal plant. All production is booked for the next 18 months. However, its easy to see that photovoltaics at Nanosolar price points will make it easy to get financing to scale up to 50-100 plants just like the one now in production.

    Every desert in the world suddenly is a spindletop of solar power. You can plunk a town down anywhere the sun shines bright--which is everywhere in the desert-- and have unlimited cheap power.

    Now all you need is water...but you get the picture.

    I'm going out to Las Vegas for desalination conference for various government agencies interested in desalination research. I use the photovoltaic story as a jumping off point to urge for more focus on water desalination research.

  52. Reed Canarygrass That's the stuff we've got a lot of around here.

  53. This Article says some of it is native so maybe both the county agent and I were right.

  54. Did you know that 2/3 of the energy from coal, biomass, etc. is Wasted into the atmosphere as Waste Energy?

    Now, there's This:

    Thin film, desalinization, nano thermal conductors, and, Don't Forget Drip Irrigation!

  55. The super new thing, Rufus, is to convert the body heat from 250,000 stinking sweating swedes in a mass transit facility into energy to heat a nearby building. See my earlier post for details on this epic breakthrough!

  56. Bob,

    You think a gal like Tes could handle the heat generated by 250,000 stinking sweating Swedes and keep cool?

  57. "It seems like we've known one another, long ago." Twins Get Hitched What a story. Might fit into 'A Mid- Summers Night Dream'

  58. You want "Fiscal Stimulus?"

    I'll give you Fiscal Stimulus. $170 BILLION of Fiscal Stimulus.

  59. Bar-On presents 'green tax' to gov't

    The green tax includes a plan to encourage the use of more environment friendly fuels, such as bio-diesel and bio-gas.

  60. Rufus:
    Where does sugar cane stand in this contest?
    They've been firing boilers and making electricity with it for over a Century out here.

  61. Doug, Sugar Cane is probably the Best Ethanol Feedstock, at least in areas where it grows well. They say they can produce it for around $0.65/gal in Brazil (that's quite a bit less than it takes to make corn ethanol;) but, keep in mind they, essentially use "slave" labor in many cases.

    Sugar Cane to ethanol should be a great industry for Hawaii, it would seem, although I don't know exactly how the U.S.'s goofy sugar subsidies might affect it. I know any time you run into "sugar" you run into a buzzsaw in the U.S.

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