Skip to main content

Oklahoma State experiences days of future past with biofuels research

Friday, September 29, 2006

This and other Oklahoma State University news stories related to agriculture, family and consumer sciences, rural development and youth development are available via the Internet at by clicking on the “Current News” box.

By Donald Stotts
STILLWATER, Okla. – The Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station’s groundbreaking research on turning grasses into energy has been receiving a lot of attention, from Congress and the White House to the Governor’s Conference on Biofuels and beyond.
“We’ve been very popular with the media, political and commodity groups, and even people sitting in coffee shops, and for a very good reason; turning biomass into biofuels is not a fad with Oklahoma State University, we’ve been committed to these efforts for a long time,” said Robert E. Whitson, vice president, dean and director of OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
The statewide Experiment Station system is part of the division, as are the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
One of OSU’s earliest and most high-profile efforts – turning switchgrass into “grassohol” – received increased public attention after President George Bush mentioned switchgrass in his 2006 State of the Union address, as part of his setting a lofty goal for the nation: Replace more than 75 percent of America’s oil exports from the Middle East by 2025.
“The president’s mention of switchgrass put a new emphasis on renewable energy beyond standard corn fermentation in providing ethanol to the liquid fuel offerings,” said Ray Huhnke, OSU Cooperative Extension agricultural engineer and coordinator of the university’s biofuels team.
OSU, in cooperation with the University of Oklahoma and Mississippi State University, is working on a unique gasification-fermentation technology in which grasses are gasified into carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and other components. The gases are then bubbled through a bioreactor where a unique set of microorganisms converts them into ethanol and other value-added products.
“The beauty of our system is that for every 1 unit of energy put into the ‘grassohol’ process, as much as 3 units of energy are returned,” Huhnke said. “Traditional corn-based ethanol production provides 1.6 units of energy per 1 unit of energy input.”
Instead of looking solely at corn, OSU researchers are studying all types of perennial grasses, including switchgrass.
Oklahoma has thousands of acres of marginal land that is not suited for producing cultivated crops. Yet switchgrass is a resource that such land can and does produce almost naturally. There is no real market for switchgrass in and of itself but turn that product into enthanol, sell it as an alternative fuel and the potential is enormous.
“That type of major boost to the economy from a proven environmentally friendly product would benefit Oklahoma, the region and the nation,” Whitson said.  
Realizing that, division researchers spent years breeding switchgrass that can produce greater yields. Charles Taliaferro, recently retired plant breeder and a longtime Regents professor in the department of plant and soil sciences, used a grant from the Lockheed-Martin Corporation to begin the process of switchgrass improvement in the early 1990s.
The grant was part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Biofuels Feedstock Development Program administered by Lockheed-Martin at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
From the start Taliaferro, nationally renowned in plant breeding circles, and his fellow researchers such as Huhnke, Danielle Bellmer, Randy Lewis, Francis Epplin and Ralph Tanner recognized the potential of switchgrass, a perennial plant that did not require the amount of nurturing required with row crops. The switchgrass research plots grown as part of Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station studies resulted in improved varieties and germplasm used in subsequent plant breeding and other scientific investigations.
Switchgrass is found in the central and eastern portion of the United States from the Gulf Coast to Canada. Switchgrass grows on many different soil types, from bottomland to less productive upland soils. The wide distribution of the species is a plus, because strains can be found growing under a variety of environmental conditions, meaning it can be widely planted and cultivated, with little by way of labor and upkeep relative to other perennial grass species.
Still, that does not mean that OSU researchers are overlooking other potential prospects. Different types of grasses must not only work well, they must be available in the necessary volume throughout the year to ensure bioconversion is economically viable.
“Think of it as a continuation of the process started years ago,” Whitson said. “Our OSU researchers didn’t overlook the potential of switchgrass then, which is a prime reason why the science on a national level has developed to the point it has today. Our current, interdisciplinary team of scientists is not overlooking the potential of other biomass crops simply because switchgrass may be the hot topic of conversation at the moment.”
Whitson said OSU’s Biofuels Team looks forward to enhancing the university’s working relationship with OU, MSU, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and Brigham Young University, where chemical engineer Randy Lewis now resides while continuing to work on the OSU biofuels project.  
“Our biofuels research has always been a multi-college effort and now we’re increasingly becoming multi-institutional,” Whitson said. “We in the division have long believed and promoted that an interdisciplinary outlook is the best way to develop solutions to the challenges facing society, and solving real-world issues is a vital part of the land-grant mission and reason why OSU exists. It’s who we are at our core.”

Back To Top
SVG directory not found.