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Switchgrass As A Biofuels Feedstock In The USA

M. A. Sanderson, P. R. Adler, A. A. Boateng, M. D. Casler, G. Sarath

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Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) has been identified as a model herbaceous energy crop for the USA. In this review, we selectively highlight current USDA-ARS research on switchgrass for biomass energy. Intensive research on switchgrass as a biomass feedstock in the 1990s greatly improved our understanding of the adaptation of switchgrass cultivars, production practices, and environmental benefits. Several constraints still remain in terms of economic production of switchgrass for biomass feedstock including reliable establishment practices to ensure productive stands in the seeding year, efficient use of fertilizers, and more efficient methods to convert lignocellulose to biofuels. Overcoming the biological constraints will require genetic enhancement, molecular biology, and plant breeding efforts to improve switchgrass cultivars. New genomic resources will aid in developing molecular markers, and should allow for marker-assisted selection of improved germplasm. Research is also needed on profitable management practices for switchgrass production appropriate to specific agro-ecoregions and breakthroughs in conversion methodology. Current higher costs of biofuels compared to fossil fuels may be offset by accurately valuing environmental benefits associated with perennial grasses such as reduced runoff and erosion and associated reduced losses of soil nutrients and organic matter, increased incorporation of soil carbon and reduced use of agricultural chemicals. Use of warm-season perennial grasses in bioenergy cropping systems may also mitigate increases in atmospheric CO2. A critical need is teams of scientists, extension staff, and producer-cooperators in key agro-ecoregions to develop profitable management practices for the production of biomass feedstocks appropriate to those agro-ecoregions. Key words: Bioenergy, biomass conversion technologies, Panicum virgatum L., stand establishment, switchgrass improvement, USDA-ARS