Switchgrass: The Super Plant Savior?

It grows throughout the Great Plains and parts of the South, can be used to make ethanol -- an efficient and environmentally friendly fuel for cars -- and it has the potential to reduce the nation's dependence on oil.

Switchgrass is the perennial wonder plant touted by President Bush in Tuesday's State of the Union address and in his remarks made today in Nashville, Tenn., where he joked that he could have a new career in farming. "All of a sudden, you know, you may be in the energy business," Bush said. "You know, by being able to grow grass on the ranch and have it harvested and converted into energy. And that's what's close to happening."

Close, but how close? Bush's goal is to increase research into the production of ethanol using such elements as grass and wood chips, which could make it a cost-effective energy source by 2012. The White House says ethanol could potentially amount to 30 percent of the nation's current fuel use.

But some who work in the industry say the research is already well under way, and what's really needed is a commercial plant to convert switchgrass to ethanol on a large scale.

David Bransby, a professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., supervises research into ways to optimize switchgrass production. He told ABC News that researchers know how to grow, plant, harvest and deliver switchgrass, but now they need a market for it. And the biggest barrier to that is government policy.

Bransby said the Department of Energy will only fund a pilot project to produce energy using switchgrass, about 10 to 15 tons a day. There are no plans for commercial plants that could develop technology to convert switchgrass into ethanol on a large scale.

Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, told ABC News that the government wants to make sure the projects are viable on a small scale before expanding. "We need to walk before we can run," Stevens said, "and we need to make sure these technologies work."

An Old Process

Ethanol as a fuel is nothing new. Dan Sperling, a professor at the University of California at Davis and director of its Institute of Transportation Studies, noted that even early Model T Fords used ethanol, and it's an ingredient in beer and wine.

Most ethanol produced in America is made from corn -- a less-efficient material than switchgrass -- but corn producers are supported by a large lobby and huge government subsidies. There is no similar lobby or investment for grass or wood.

"When you make ethanol from corn, for every gallon of fuel you get, you put in about seven-tenths of a gallon of fossil energy, oil or natural gas," he said. "That's only a small improvement in terms of greenhouse gases."

On the other hand, he said, "ethanol from cellulose [like switchgrass] is a great energy strategy because for every gallon of ethanol, a tiny amount of fossil material [is used.] There's a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases, so from an energy perspective it's far superior."

"We've known this for a long time," Sperling said. "Why has nothing happened? Part of it is we do need more R and D [research and development], but I think what we really need is a commitment on the industry and business side to invest."

For the government's part, Bush's 2007 budget will include $150 million -- a $59 million increase over the fiscal year 2006 -- to help develop bio-based transportation fuels from agricultural waste products, such as wood chips, stalks or switchgrass.

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