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New “Frankenstein” Switchgrass is Good News for the Navy, Too

Despite aggressive pushback from anti-biofuel leadership in Congress, it looks like the U.S. Navy is well on the way to getting its biofuel after all. A new biofuel research project pairing the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the University of California, Berkeley has yielded a new cobbled-together variety of switchgrass that contains up to 250 percent more starch than other varieties. That could effectively slam the door on the Navy’s critics, by leading to a biofuel production process that is cost-competitive with petroleum.

switchgrass research for cheaper biofuels

U.S. Navy vs Congress on Biofuels

CleanTechnica has been following the U.S. Navy’s transition to biofuels and other forms of alternative energy, including solar power and wave energy. Last spring, Republican leaders in Congress attempted to monkey wrench the Navy’s biofuel initiatives by passing legislation that would prohibit the Navy from buying any alternative fuel that is more expensive than conventional fuels.

The Obama Administration swiftly responded with a one-two punch, one being $62 million in Navy–supported funding for new research projects to help bring down the cost of biofuel. The initiative is authorized under the 1950’s-era Defense Production Act, so it is not affected by Congress’s recent actions.

The other is a new $210 million public-private partnership to build three new biorefineries. That skirts other recent legislation that had been intended to prevent the Navy from building its own biorefineries.

Better Switchgrass for Cheaper Biofuel

The new research from USDA and UC–Berkeley predates all of this maneuvering, but it could provide the knockout punch. The project involves patching a gene from corn called corngrass into switchgrass, to create a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a grass that is incapable of aging.

As described by writer Ann Perry at USDA, the new switchgrass stays in an early stage of life in which it never goes dormant, and it never produces seeds or flowers.

Without the need to expend energy on flowers and seeds, the grass keeps up to 250 percent more starch in its stem than other varieties, yielding more sugar for fermentation into biofuels.


Another Path to Biofuel from Non-Food Crops

As an extra bonus, the leaves of the new switchgrass contain clues that might lead to more efficient methods for breaking down grasses and other woody non-food plants into biofuels.

The leaves are much softer than those in unmodified switchgrass, and they contain a different kind of lignin (lignin is the substance that stiffens cell walls in woody plants). According to Perry, an analysis of the new lignin could provide new information on how to release the sugars from plant cells.

A National Focus on Non-Food Biofuel Crops

The focus on non-food crops is a priority under the Obama Administration’s national biofuel initiative, which joined the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and the Navy in a memorandum of understanding to support the development of a national biofuel industry.

National security and biofuel refining are just two sectors that win out from the new initiative. Farmers across the U.S. also stand to gain, through the development of hardy, drought-resistant crops that can be grown with less need for irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

As for leaders in Congress who are against federal policies that pick “energy winners and losers,” they may be getting the stinkeye from the U.S. Navy, but they are getting plenty of support from the Republican Party Platform (see page 15) as well as from presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan.

Image: Switchgrass seedlings. Some rights reserved by eXtension Farm Energy.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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