Written by Tim Hull

Switchgrass, a resilient, high-yield grass native to North America, has been drawing a lot of attention lately thanks to the president giving it his imprimatur in his 2006 State of the Union address.

This might just be more than political rhetoric because Switchgrass (also known as Tall Panic Grass) could become the biofuel of our dreams.

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) suggests that Switchgrass, which can be grown in nearly three-quarters of the nation’s biozones and is resistant to drought, has a net energy output some 20 times better than that of corn, long the preferred feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S.

What’s more, corn, like many agricultural crops, tends to deplete the soil it’s grown in. Switchgrass adds organic matter to its soil, and is often used for erosion control due to its vast stem and root systems.

It’s a little ironic that Switchgrass is becoming the darling of alternative fuels research, as there used to be oceans of the tall, tough grass spreading across the Great Plains. As the nation moved westward, those oceans of Switchgrass were drained and planted in their stead was field after field of corn, beans, and other agricultural products meant to feed the burgeoning nation.

Switchgrass grows quickly, and typically reaches between two and six feet in height, but has been known to grow as high as 10 feet. It has a thick, hard stalk, and extends deep into the soil, using water very efficiently.

According to DOE research, every metric ton of Switchgrass can produce the biomass needed to produce approximately 100 gallons of ethanol.

Dave Bransby, a scientist at Auburn University, recently recorded a one-year switchgrass yield of 15 tons per acre, according to the DOE, and a six-year average of 11.5 tons per year. Such yields could make up to an impressive 1,500 gallons of ethanol per acre!

With world events as they are and the nation’s need to become more fuel independent finally becoming a matter of public policy, future generations could see the plain states once again covered in oceans of Switchgrass.