Updated on 7 September 2012
The study concluded that switchgrass produced 540 percent more energy than needed to grow, harvest and process it into cellulosic ethanol and the average greenhouse gas emissions from this cellulosic ethanol production were 94 percent lower than estimated greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline. Considering the biofuel crisis, the US Department of Energy has provided partial funding for the construction of cellulosic biorefineries across the US.
With the rapid development in emerging economies such as China and India, there are ethical concerns over the production of food as compared to biofuel crops, due to constraints such as limited land and the need for quality food for large populations. These challenges call for international collaborations on bioenergy research. Certain collaborative efforts have been made in this regard, like US-China Collaborative biofuel research conferences have been held at Knoxville, Tennessee, US in 2009; in Beijing, China, during in 2010 and at West Lafayette, Indiana, US, in 2011. Many collaborative initiatives and issues for implementing the lignocellulosic biofuel platforms have been developed and discussed.
Salt and drought tolerant grasses such as switchgrass have huge potential as bioenergy feedstocks as they use marginal land and meet the recommended sustainable benchmarks. The adaptability of ten switchgrass cultivars to arid and semi-arid environments, such as the Loess Plateau, China, have been investigated and has led to the optimization of choices for biomass plants.
While wild type switchgrass has many promising features and is also being improved by conventional plant breeding, biotechnology will likely be necessary to make dedicated bioenergy feedstocks economically viable. The reference whole genome sequence of switchgrass is being assembled by the Joint Genome Institute, US. This will increase the possibility of genetically engineering or manipulating many economically important genes related to biofuel production, the most urgent being the need to engineer improved ability to breakdown cell walls into sugars.
Grasses such as switchgrass cover at least 20 percent of the global land area and are known to be well-adapted to diverse environments, thus making them potential sources for second generation lignocellulosic biofuels. By understanding their basic biology, cell wall biosynthesis, eco-evolutionary relationships and population variability, it is possible to replace non-renewable fossil fuels and contribute to global environmental and economical sustainability.