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What Goes Around, Comes Around

Posted May 1, 2006

The federal government, particularly the Department of Energy, is interested in finding alternative sources of fuel to reduce the United States' dependence on imported oil. As President Bush said in his January 31, 2006, State of the Union address, a strong candidate to assist in meeting this goal is switchgrass, a perennial, warm-season grass native throughout North America, which can be used to produce ethanol.

Ethanol is a clean-burning, renewable, domestically produced biofuel that can be made from agricultural products. In 2003, more than 2.8 billion gallons of ethanol were added to gasoline in the United States to improve vehicle performance and reduce carbon monoxide air pollution.

The Noble Research Institute today is widely recognized as an institution in a unique position to contribute to switchgrass research and its development into a viable energy crop. Our Forage Improvement Division has extensive capabilities in grass breeding and cultivar (variety) development. Through traditional and marker-assisted plant breeding, we are capable of developing elite plant material with improved persistence and yield.

Switchgrass is recognized as having abundant carbohydrates, which are broken down to sugars for fermentation in the ethanol production process. Unfortunately, these carbohydrates are bound in place by a material known as lignin. To strip away this lignin, traditional conversion processes require costly pre-treatments that can inhibit ethanol fermentation. This limitation has increased the cost of ethanol production and diminished the value of switchgrass as an ethanol feedstock.

Using technology developed in our Plant Biology Division, Noble scientists have successfully reduced naturally occurring lignin and modified lignin composition within alfalfa, bermudagrass and tall fescue. This past research was not for ethanol production, but for improved forage digestibility for livestock production. Now, using the same technology, Noble seeks to show that a reduction in lignin content and/or a modification of lignin composition in switchgrass can improve conversion efficiency and reduce the cost of ethanol production.

The Noble Research Institute has received United States Department of Agriculture funding to conduct this lignin research in switchgrass. While the primary research will be conducted on our campus, we will collaborate with the Bioprocessing Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ever since President Bush mentioned switchgrass in his State of the Union address, there has been considerable discussion with a number of different organizations regarding the role Noble might play in this switchgrass initiative. Perhaps valued as much as our scientific capabilities is the production agriculture expertise in our Agricultural Division and the network of agricultural producers - our cooperators - that our Agricultural Division has developed over the years. As many readers of this article can attest, the Agricultural Division is a group with specialized expertise having the ability to design and develop critical management systems to assist producers in introducing, managing and benefiting from new agricultural opportunities. Switchgrass may be such a new opportunity.

As I began to think about the challenges and opportunities represented by the development of switchgrass as an energy crop, I thought of my article that appeared in the March 2004 issue of NF Ag News and Views, which said, in part:
"In the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Fred DeHoffman, who was then the president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. In the late 1970s, the Noble Research Institute provided the initial funding to the Salk Institute to start their plant biology research program. I asked Dr. DeHoffman why one of the premier biomedical research institutes in the world would have an interest in a plant biology research program. He explained that the betterment of mankind was dependent not only upon health care advances, but also upon better and more efficient delivery of food and forage to man and animals, which would require the incorporation of the latest science and technology into production agriculture systems."

Dr. DeHoffman's comments point out an interesting irony in modern agriculture that is well illustrated by our participation in the development of switchgrass as a biomass crop for ethanol production.

It is ironic to me that the Noble Research Institute could play an important role in the development of biomass alternatives to petroleum-based fuels - the source of the Noble Research Institute's financial base. And, additionally, while there is no doubt that science and technology are necessary to advance agriculture, science and technology alone will accomplish nothing. The farmer remains integral to the solution.

In a sense, what goes around does truly come around.