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Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

Posted January 20, 2008 8:00 AM

A new study focuses on using switchgrass grown in Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota as a source for ethanol production. The study goes into detail on the crop's net energy output, greenhouse gas emissions, biomass yields, agricultural inputs, and estimated cellulosic ethanol production. The results show that switchgrass is a promising alternative to corn and sorghum, and researchers are working to improve the technology that would enable it to be used for ethanol production.

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#1

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/21/2008 12:49 AM

Let's hope it's not some invasive species with unintended consequences

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/21/2008 1:04 AM

Good point. Maybe they should try exploring the potential of kudzu as an energy source instead.

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#5
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/21/2008 9:03 AM

I don't know if you are kidding, but you may have something. I have often wondered if the height of Kudzu grown on lines or dead trees etc. might make it more productive per acre than shorter plants. Kudzu is nitrogen fixing also. Not sure. The roots go down about 12 feet , that might make them useful in semi arid areas.

Wikipedia says that Kudzu produces two to four tons of foliage per year. There are many medicinal and other uses, as well as forage.

A lot of people are more attracted to Hemp for some reason.

Ron Wagner

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#19
In reply to #5

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/25/2008 6:04 AM

I'm dead serious, actually. Given how fast kudzu grows, and how well it can withstand extreme climatic conditions, it would be a good plant to grow for fuel in arid regions that few other plants can survive in.

I didn't know about the nitrogen fixing capability, so thanks for that bit of information. In this case, growing kudzu for a couple of generations will enrich the soil. When it's fertile enough, it can be used to grow sorghum or millet or some other arid region crops until the soil plays out again. Then it can be used to grow kudzu for fuel again. I think that in this way, we can work out a compromise betwen crops for food and crops for fuel.

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#20
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/25/2008 10:15 AM

Crop rotation is a very important process in agriculture. Keep in mind that the food crop stems are normally plowed under, burned, used as animal feed, or somehow otherwise disposed or thrown away. The use as animal feed is a step forward in recycling, but this can be processed into energy at the same time, and the residue can be processed into a very good fertilizer, animal feed, or a fully bio-degradable plastic. Our food plants have many uses beyond simply feeding us.

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#3
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch grass?

01/21/2008 5:36 AM

Dear Brave east-coaster,

Actually, it's the corn (that's maize to Brits) and sorghum what are "non-native." Switch grass is an indigenous grass across much of the more arid plains, on to the arid west coast inland valleys. While not a tall grass (NE, ND, SD would probably be on the boundary between original tall (wet) and short (dry) plains grasses which went the way of the buffalo), it is both hardy and rapid growing.

One advantage not mentioned is the prospect of multi-cropping (adding switch grass as a supplement, or even rotational crop, to the presently raised "corns" (that's maize and wheat) and sorghum)...this as a hedge against the prospect of increased temperatures and aridity in those regions. In the same vein, switch grass is even being used or considered for use as a drought-tolerant ornamental ground cover in western areas where water supply availability/sustainability is variable or in doubt. (One man's weed is another man's lawn. And, a farmer growing switch grass could grow it right up to his/her front door...and virtually never need to water.)

Plains farmers considering switch grass will need to consider ways to grow and harvest switch grass as fully mechanically as possible...ideally without setting foot in field; or adopt apparel which is compatible with switch grass...possibly even a reversion to leggings &or chaps. Because switch grass seeds are adapted for catching on anything that brushes past and then burrowing in fast (to just about any pelage or fabric), things like sneakers and low cut shoes/boots are out. Switch grass seeds are so adept at "hitching a ride" to new places, that when you feel the painful "stick" of the seeds in pant legs or shoes, it's not just a matter of pulling them off. Sometime the shoes, socks, even pants have to come off to get at the seeds from inside...and, even then, and even after several launderings, it's not unusual to keep feeling an occasional stick.

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch grass?

01/21/2008 6:10 AM

That's good to know. Thanks.

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#9
In reply to #4

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch grass?

01/22/2008 4:36 PM

Is that a Renaissance festival outfit you're wearing? Do you also have a "real" broadsword? Just curious.

a balimerite

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#13
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch grass?

01/23/2008 10:37 AM

No, the avatar is a rip-off from Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Eric Idle plays the part of Brave Sir Robin.

The minstrel accompanying Brave Sir Robin through the deep dark woods was singing the following verses while playing the lute.

"When danger reared its ugly head,
He bravely turned his tail and fled

Yes, Brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out

Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat

Bravest of the brave Sir Robin
Petrified of being dead
Soiled his pants then brave Sir Robin
Turned away and fled."

Quite the riot. They even played the lines during the play Spamelot. Good show if you are inclined towards the absurd. I would say the Spamelot production is a good combination of Monty Python and a Mel Brooks production.

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#6

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/21/2008 2:30 PM

Ethanol is produced by bacterial digestion of sugars, primarily COH6 and COH5 sugars. Plants contain these sugars in some quantity. They also contain starches and cellulose. All of the starches and some of the cellulose can be converted to the usable sugars by boiling in a mild acid bath. The sugar being soluble are transfered as a liquid to a fermenting tank (with controlled Ph and temperature) and the proper bacteria is inserted to begin the fermentation process. One does not have to depend upon a specifically grown crop to provide the sugars required for this process, in fact, growing any crop for ethanol, including corn, is fullish. Please refer to the APIX blog in this CR4 forums. Also, you need to refer to the research work being done with this on the USA Dept. of Energy. I am sure you will find eye opening information. Switch-grass is but one of the viable plants and plant wastes that might be used to produce Ethanol.

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/21/2008 9:25 PM

Thanks for the reference to the APIX blog. It looks very interesting, but I think they should consider some new technology also.

I disagree, that all our biomass fuel needs can be met with only waste. We will need crops also. Many crops are being used for fuel around the world. This trend will continue to grow,until we find a better way. I am all for using waste, solar, wind, wave etc. but this will be a long term competition for the best technologies and raw materials. We must find the best ways to meet human needs without destroying the environment. I envision a garden world, that is beautiful,an wisely managed. Of course there are many threats to that vision. Soil science will pay a vital role, as will waste management.

All the best,

Ron Wagner

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/21/2008 10:28 PM

I agree that we will use a combination of all of these energy producing tools, and, at least in the short haul, we will need to continue to use fossil fuels as well. With fossil fuels, the target is to use more efficiency in the consumption of the fuel. With solar power, again, efficiency is important, but most important is to reduce the cost from today's $4+ per watt to at least $0.40 per watt and $0.004 per watt would be ideal. There are several designs in the works to reduce the cost and increase efficiency for wind turbines, too. And to top it all off, fuel cells are advancing by leaps and bounds. Both Acumentrics and Siemens are schedule to market Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC) in the 2 to 5 kilowatt range for the home owner and Ceramics Limited of Australia has signed a deal to supply a company in England with SOFC Combined Heating and Power (CHP) units in the 1 KW range to replace the heating units for homes. The latest technology is is here and now, it is up to us to educate the public and Engineer it into our lives. One more of our Sustainability Engineered projects (SEP) projects is my own project, My Earthbound Stace Station (MESS) which attempts to utilize a number of the technologies for the farmers and home owners in the more effluent communities.

You are quite welcome to join us, too. We are a group of CR4 members unit, too.

Yours,

tank

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#10
In reply to #8

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/22/2008 5:35 PM

Thanks for the invitation, I have no technical expertise, but am always studying the newest technologies. Will take a look at your site.

Thanks,

Ron Wagner

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#11
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/22/2008 6:51 PM

Please see cyclonepower.com Would like your opinion on this new engine that will burn nearly anything, and have clean emissions. It is called an external combustion engine. It seems perfect for home power and heating! Seems to be ready for production.

I would also like your opinion on storing energy in compressed air, as a solution to the solar energy, and wind power, etc. storage problems. Compressed air engines are also being used in utility vehicles already. Tata Nano may have one soon.

All the best,

Ron Wagner

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#12
In reply to #11

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switch-grass?

01/22/2008 10:17 PM

In both of your concepts, the cyclone engine and storing compressed air for energy, you run into the same problem, the inefficient use of the energy. The best one can get from any sort of heat energy engine, including the sterling engine is about 30% to 35%. and with time and wear, this efficiency decreases. When you thing of an automobile, think of delivering the power from the 30% efficient engine to to the transmission which eats another 20% of the efficiency, which leaves (30 times .8 = ) 24% efficiency of the original energy. With another 40% loss for the drive shaft and differential (24 times .6= ) 14.4%. Now consider the 20% friction loss between the wheel and the paving (14.4 times .8 = ) 11.5 and actually, wind up with only about 10% of the original energy reaching the ground to drive your vehicle. Not understand that my figure are only an approximation, but they are close enough to give you a reasonable idea. You can go through the same procedure for the compressed air, too. One needs to look at how to get the most out of the energy. This is why I chose the Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) and my primary source for electrical power. When the fuel is consumed, the electric power is produced at 60% efficiency with the remaining 40% being the heat of the reaction. If one uses this heat to drive an engine like a steam turbine or for home heating and hot water, the over all efficiency approaches 80% to 90%. So you see, 60% to 90% efficiency of the Fuel cell for producing electrical power vs. 30% for engine driven generators means a huge savings in greenhouse gases and in fuel consumption. Now for storing electric power generated by solar cells or wind turbines, consider using the extra electric power to hydrolyze water to make hydrogen, which is the ultimate energy source to use in your fuel cell when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. Of course, this is a simplified version, but at least it gives you some idea of how to use our energy sources more efficiently.

Yours,

tank

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#14

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/23/2008 1:32 PM

What is being ignored by mainstream energy research/development is that all bio-energy sources require both the land to grow the crops and, more importantly, the water to irrigate them. We're all too familiar with the crises being brought on by global warming, declining reserves of fossil fuels, and the clash between Judeo-Christianity and Islam, but one that is imminent will be caused by the shortage of fresh water in the world.
Historically, wars have been fought since the beginning of human history over this essential resource, and now is no different. Considerably less than 2% of the Earth's water is fresh, and much of that is polluted because industry has always located itself close to rivers and lakes. If we look at the water requirement to produce a single gallon of biofuel, and multiply that by the number of gallons necessary to present a significant alternative to fossil fuels, we're faced with the obvious problem of deciding who is going to have to go without drinking water and irrigation water for food crops to provide water to grow that biomass from which the fuel is to be extracted. In a time when weather patterns and therefore rainfall are becoming increasingly more unpredictable, a water-intensive agricultural solution to the energy crisis is not too bright unless it's dispersed to the community level, which is not in the plans.
This is another typically short sighted solution, promoted by those individuals and groups who cling to the centrist models of commerce, public utilities and economics in general; gather the means of production for anything of value into a single, monopolizable system, one supplier, many consumers, and thereby control supply and price for maximum profit. This is the kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place, the flat refusal of Detroit, corporate American and the Federal Government to abandon the centrist mentality and seriously move toward renewable, sustainable, environmentally benevolent alternative fuel sources. The hippies of the 60's actively promoted solar and wind power in dispersed, community and individual level initiatives and now today, fifty years later, we're fighting in the Middle East for control of its remaining oil reserves and "discovering" the promise of alternative energies. And the best we can come up with is an enormous boost to agribusiness as the American farmer is being pushed out of existence and clean fresh water is a diminishing resource worldwide? We have got to rethink our use of energy, from the bottom up, to handle this crisis without creating the next one as we do so. I'm reminded of the guiding philosophy of the Iroquois Confederation which governed the eastern seaboard of the United States prior to the arrival of the European settlers, "We must consider in our every decision the effect on our descendants, even to the seventh generation." Let's not swap one crisis for another when we still have time to develop intelligent alternatives.

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#15
In reply to #14

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/23/2008 1:57 PM

Well, Karl Marx proposed and Lenin tried to implement "unnatural" economic policies. We all know the outcome of that experiment though some nations still stubbornly cling to it because those in power want to stay in power. Solutions that apply to the natural economic orders are the only ones that can succeed. Change will happen as the need dictates. You cannot arbitrarily dictate that change. It will fail. How many communes still exist post sixties? Price controls of the seventies Pres. Nixon? etc.

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#17
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/23/2008 9:29 PM

You need to study the transpiration cycle of water. It is a naturally renewed molecule. It is used by plants. The plants release what they use, when they die, it finds its way to the ocean or is evaporated before then. Then it forms clouds, and comes back down again. It is never used up.

If we wish, we can use salt water to grow biomass, and grow algae. We need to start using alternative energy to desalinate salt water, and quit wasting it in arid areas. They need to quit growing grass front lawns, and start growing succulents, and cactus.

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#18
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Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/24/2008 1:59 PM

Clay,

A nice desertion and you are correct that fresh, potable water is a major concern for the world. We, in the USA and in some most of the affluent and developed world have an infrastructure to provide water, whether or not it is safe is another story. But you need to look at the bigger picture. One part of the research presented by science and the "green" community it to find means of delivering potable water to arid and semi-arid communities. Another part of the effort is to educate those who live area with fresh water available, such as from wells, streams, rivers and lakes how to make it safe and free of disease carrying organisms. The finding of safe, potable drinking water has been a public health concern, world wide, for well over a century.

As for producing safe, potable water, please consider the work being done in Nanotechnology and with with reverse osmosis. This process is currently commercially available now, and can and will be use to remove the salts and bacteria from sea water. The water can be piped to semi-arid and arid regions, consumed by humans and animals (farm and wild), recycled to use in the bio-digestion process, then recycled again for irrigation. and finally recycled back to the rivers and oceans through the natural weather cycles. This is being used in Israel now to make their deserts Bloom.

Since you have chosen to join CR4, may I assume you have some engineering skills. If so, why not put them to work and engineer plans that might help educate and bring fresh, safe water to those who have not the means to do so themselves. You can even engineer a means of recycling the water to put it to best use. Think of large closed evaporation farms where sea water is pumped into shallow ponds to evaporate the water, then to condense on the sloped sides of the transparent cover to run down into collection troughs to be pumped to the regions of need.

For your enlightenment, may I suggest you consider the APIX-SEP Project and the MESS-SEP project as well. Much work is being done and you will find that we can provide ourselves with all the energy we need with our wastes and by farming the oceans of the world. We do not require the use of any fossil fuels, but let's not concern ourselves with doing way with fossil fuels altogether. The gas, oil, and coal will still have its uses, all we need to do is to stop pumping so much pollution into the atmosphere and allow mother nature (or God, if you wish) to do her thing. Mother nature has a way of fixing man's mistakes, one way or another. I would rather be here to see how she does it, than to have her remove us as the necessary first part of her repairs.

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#16

Re: Fill Your Tank with... Switchgrass?

01/23/2008 8:42 PM

Actually hydrogen is not an energy source, because it requires more energy to produce the hydrogen than it releases. A true source is the sun, oil, wood or coal, wind or water flow. Even though it may take some energy in processing, most fuels release more energy than it takes to refine them.

Processing biomass to make a fuel will be practical as long as the fuel releases more energy than is taken up in processing. Intensive breeding of plants and perhaps genetic engineering can make plants that are more suitable for fuel. The objectionable characteristics of switchgrass, mainly the seeds, could be modified. Perhaps DNA from switchgrass and sorghum could be blended to get the best of both plants.

There are millions of acres of unused farmland and marginal lands that could be used to grow fuel crops, providing incomes to many small farmers who have given up farming. There will be multiple fuels available in the future and vehicles designed to use them. Even H will have a niche to fill.

The engines used may be as varied as the fuels. Internal combustion engines are not as efficient or as clean as external combustion engines, but everyone thinks steam engines are obsolete, old-fashioned and heavy, even dangerous, but they are wrong. EC is ideal for the use of multiple types of fuel. Steam is not good as direct power to the wheels, but to generate electricity, to charge the batteries in a plug-in electric vehicle when it nears the limits of its pure electric range, a steam engine is ideal. It can easily be fueled with ethanol too.

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