By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D.
As a rule, change comes slowly to the agricultural landscape of the Prairie Pothole Region. Change can be risky, and farmers are risk-averse by nature. Modern agribusiness is characterized by huge capital investments, large volumes of money moving into and then back out of checkbooks, and—in the end—thin profit margins. There is little room for experimentation and a failed crop year. But a daring new attitude is sweeping across farm country, and it’s setting the stage for dramatic changes in land use. It’s “ethanol fever.”
Companies have been fermenting corn into ethanol for decades, and many of us have filled our vehicles with a 10 percent blend of their product. But until recently, few of us have given serious thought to the need to wean our nation off foreign oil. And hardly anyone knew there was a plant called switchgrass that, given time and new technology, might be an important ingredient in the recipe for energy independence.
How quickly things change. Reducing our dependence on foreign oil is now a cornerstone of federal policy. And that obscure plant called switchgrass emerged in the public consciousness when President Bush referenced it in his 2006 State of the Union address. From all indications, “biofuels” are here to stay.
Energy from Biomass
Biofuels are energy sources derived from plants or other living organisms (biomass). Converting plant matter to biofuel can be as simple as picking the stems and leaves from a field, bundling them up, and then transporting them to a power plant where they are burned—together with coal and other fuels—to generate electricity. But most often, the term biofuel refers to a liquid derived from plant material and used as a transportation fuel. Ethanol and biodiesel are the most common examples.