Could switchgrass replace fossil fuels?

Could switchgrass, a perennial warmseason grass that is native to North America and can be made into renewable biofuel, be used to help power steam plants? And replace non-renewable fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal in the process? That's what Doo-Hong Min, MSU AgBioResearch forages/bioenergy crop scientist and Extension specialist, has been helping his research partners try to discover.

Based at the Upper Peninsula Research Center in Chatham, Min has been collaborating since 2007 with Cliffs Natural Resources, an international mining and resources company, and one of its subsidiaries, Renewafuel, LLC. The companies have been testing cubes made from plant biomass that includes switchgrass, wood, and corn stover (leaves, stalks, and cobs) as a possible fuel.

Min, whose research focuses on switchgrass and forages, has tested nine varieties of switchgrass at the U.P. Research Center and Renewafuel also has a test site in the area. Min has been working with the companies' scientists to help them identify which varieties of switchgrass are best to grow in the U.P. and how best to grow them.

Michelle Jarvie, an environmental engineer with Cliffs who has been working on the test plot, said, "Dr. Min's research and advice have been invaluable to us. His expertise has made it easier for us to start working with this new crop."

Min's research also benefits local farmers. Once planted, switchgrass can grow for 15-20 years because it has a massive root system. The crop is very low maintenance and can be planted on marginal land, which adds value to them. Besides being a biofuel raw material, switchgrass can be used as livestock feed during the summer slump of cool-season grasses.

Renewafuel is currently working to modify its woodchip cubing machine to blend woodchips with switchgrass and other feedstock. Once the modifications are complete, the company plans to buy switchgrass from growers near its recently opened biomass fuel production plant in the Telkite Technology Park on the site of the former K. I. Sawyer Air Force base in Marquette County. Min has been working with growers to increase the amount of switchgrass grown by testing different varieties in nearby Dickinson County.

It's estimated that Renewafuel's $19-million plant will produce 150,000 tons of biomass fuel cubes annually at full production. The company's research and development facility in Battle Creek is expected to produce another 60,000 tons per year. So far 25 employees (many from local areas) are working at the new plant, and additional spinoff jobs could be created.