- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

QUEENSTOWN, Md. (AP) — A common grass that needs no fertilizer and grows as high as 7 feet could provide Maryland farmers with a cheap source of fuel, according to a university researcher.

Switchgrass is a dense, tasseled grass that grows easily in Maryland. Though used mostly as a buffer or for ground cover, the grass could also be an energy boon for state farmers, said University of Maryland biosystems engineer Ken Staver.

Mr. Staver has installed a straw-burning boiler at the university’s Wye Research and Education Center, where he burns switchgrass to save 700 to 800 gallons of fuel oil each winter, worth $1,700 to $2,000. And he thinks the grass also could easily be used by farmers as supplemental fuel. Mr. Staver said a 4-acre plot could provide $4,900 worth of fuel.

“If energy prices go up, all of a sudden you don’t have to think of it strictly as a buffer,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “It has economic value.”

Mr. Staver isn’t the only one taking a new look at the grass common to American prairies. President Bush mentioned it in his 2006 State of the Union address and included switchgrass-to-energy research in his $289 million Advanced Energy Initiative.

Switchgrass, or Panicum virgatum, converts and stores more solar energy per acre than any of the grain crops being used to produce ethanol for fuel, according to Canadian researchers. It holds 66 percent more potential energy than corn, the most efficient agricultural source of ethanol, said Roger Conway, director of energy policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Some scientists are working to turn switchgrass into ethanol fuel. Mr. Staver has a simpler idea — just cut and burn it.

“If you go to the Department of Energy Web page … it’s all about ‘reprocessing this, and making that,’” he said. “People are sure that anything this simple can’t be useful. … It’s frustrating to me they don’t give more support on these kinds of issues.”

Switchgrass grows in poor soils, doesn’t need fertilizer and grows thick enough to crowd out competitors. And it’s a perennial grass, so it doesn’t have to be replanted every year.

“The only trip across the field every year is to harvest it,” Mr. Staver said.

Farmers already can be paid by the federal government to grow switchgrass for erosion control. Mr. Staver supports a change in federal Conservation Reserve Program rules to allow farmers to harvest the buffer grass as a biofuel crop.

Mr. Staver cuts and bales the switchgrass each April, then stores the 500 to 600 bales in a shed until cold weather.

He burns the grass in a burner topped by a heat exchanger. About half the heat from the burning grass is captured, then heated water is pumped through underground pipes to deliver heat. Each bale produces heat equivalent to more than 2 gallons of fuel oil.

Used full time to heat an average farmhouse, a burner would have to be stoked twice a day. Ash from the boiler — about 1 percent of the fuel’s original mass — is returned to the soil.

It may not be advanced technology, but Mr. Staver sees potential in his boiler. “There is some value to having something that works,” he said.

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