Biofuel Grass Grows Hope

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SHORTER -- As a tractor cut through 8-foot-tall switchgrass here Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions echoed President Bush's assertion that America must develop other energy sources so it can become less dependent on foreign oil.

At a bioenergy conference hosted by Auburn University, Sessions and other federal officials
pushed ethanol -- made from Alabama trees and switchgrass as well as corn -- as the alternative to gasoline.

"Nothing will slow this down unless the costs just turn out to be so high it just can't be done," said Sessions, R-Mobile, at the university's E.V. Smith Research Center.

In last month's State of the Union address, Bush proposed making America less dependent on imported oil by using switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass to make ethanol. The initiative has bipartisan support in Congress, Sessions said.

Switchgrass is a tall summer perennial grass native to the Black Belt, a traditional farming region named for its dark soil.

Wood chips are plentiful because Alabama lost three large pulp mills in the past five years to foreign competitors, said David Bransby, a professor of energy crops and bioenergy at Auburn.

Bransby was overwhelmingly positive about making ethanol from switchgrass. Not only does the technology exist to convert biomass, but Alabama farmers will be able to deliver the raw material, he said.

And because the price of oil is $60 a barrel and world consumption is on the rise, "this will happen whether or not the government supports it."

But critics think ethanol -- regardless of what it is made from -- will never come close to meeting America's demand for oil because not enough of it can be produced.

"My opinion is it will never be the saving-energy scheme for our country," said Tad Patzek, a geoengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Burning biomass such as switchgrass also would concentrate toxic metals present in plant cells, creating polluting slag, Patzek said.

Further, farmers would have to use expensive fertilizer to keep it growing if they continually mow it and it could cost more to grow switchgrass than what is earned in ethanol, Patzek said.

Along with Iowa State University, Auburn has led the field in developing effective technologies for converting switchgrass into combustible fuel.

The United States produced 3.4 billion gallons of ethanol in 2004, mainly from corn, the National Corn Growers Association said. To expand alternative fuel sources, Bush wants biomass-made ethanol to compete with corn ethanol by 2012.

If the United States took all of its biomass -- every tree, bush and grass blade -- and converted it to ethanol, it would supply just half of what the country already burns in fossil fuel, which includes coal, said David Pimentel, an ecology and agricultural sciences professor at Cornell University.

"I wish biomass is our solution," Pimentel aid. "But I'm a scientist first and I have to look at the data based on science. And we're misleading ourselves."

If successful, the Bush initiative could turn Alabama into a biofuel mecca, giving farmers and the timber industry a new source of revenue, Bransby said.

Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks echoed that enthusiasm.

"Those types of technologies are going to be extremely beneficial to the economy," Sparks said. "It's going to create jobs."

Originally published in the July 7, 2006 Montgomery Advertiser