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Cultivating a Crop of Hope

John Fike, a Virginia Tech researcher, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Signs that the crop might be able to replace corn as a major source of ethanol are evident at the center -- the drought has stunted the corn there, but the switchgrass is healthy.
John Fike, a Virginia Tech researcher, combs through switchgrass at the school's agricultural center in Orange, Va. Signs that the crop might be able to replace corn as a major source of ethanol are evident at the center -- the drought has stunted the corn there, but the switchgrass is healthy. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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In the Washington area, the University of Maryland is growing switchgrass and using it as fuel. The stalks, stuffed into a boiler, are used to heat a maintenance building and a greenhouse on the Eastern Shore.

But that project is dwarfed by the switchgrass efforts underway in Virginia. The state has relatively little switchgrass planted -- fewer than 20 farmers are thought to be growing it on less than 1,000 acres. But Virginia Tech scientists say the grass could play a major role in creating a massive biofuel economy.

In a recent white paper, they suggested that switchgrass, along with woodchips, could provide a quarter of Virginia's gas, diesel fuel and heating oil needs and support 68 small fuel refineries in the state. Researchers estimated that the new fuel sources could create 10,500 jobs, including for farmers, truck drivers and refinery workers.

One reason for the optimism is obvious at the Virginia Tech research center in Orange. Months of dry weather had stunted the corn, but the switchgrass was still green and tall.

"It's been a drought year; [we] haven't put any water on it," said John Fike, a Virginia Tech professor who is looking into potential biofuels. "I mean, that's one of the reasons people are interested in switchgrass."

In the southern part of the state, officials are especially eager. They have been ready to embrace a new crop since tobacco, a standby since colonial times, began to fade. And now comes a crop that embraces them: Virginia Tech data show that, because of the state's relatively mild climate, switchgrass might grow much better in Virginia than in Iowa.

Linda Faye Wallace, the agricultural development director in Halifax County, has been making pitches to local farmers to plant switchgrass. The financial support for that work comes from the state commission aimed at helping former tobacco-growing regions.

She said the new crop could keep farms active -- and out of developers' hands -- for years to come.

"I want to grow ag products," said Wallace, whose county borders North Carolina. "I don't want to grow homes."

There's just one thing missing from the plans to make Virginia an epicenter of ethanol production. That, unfortunately, is ethanol.

The process of turning plants into fuel is a lot like turning them into liquor, scientists say: Sugars are extracted and fermented, producing alcohol. The problem with switchgrass is that its sugars are locked up chemically and are much harder to extract than those in corn.

Scientists have not found a way to produce solutions with the right concentrations of alcohol from switchgrass, said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.


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