The use of corn for producing ethanol raises almost as many problems as benefits. From the amount of fertilizer needed to grow corn, to the fuels, usually natural gas, needed to process the corn into ethanol, to the amount of groundewater also used in the process, to the fact that corn is also a major food crop, the drawbacks of using corn to produce ethanol become more and more obvious as time goes on. Good thing, then, that studies such as this one involving the use of switchgrass are pointing towards a better way:

Switchgrass grown for biofuel production produced five times more energy than needed to grow, harvest and process it into cellulosic ethanol, finds a large farm study by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published Monday.
The five year study also found greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass were 94 percent lower than estimated greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline production.

“This clearly demonstrates that switchgrass is not only energy efficient, but can be used in a renewable biofuel economy to reduce reliance of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance rural economies,” said principal researcher Ken Vogel, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service geneticist in the university’s agronomy and horticulture department.

Unlike corn, switchgrass can be planted in marginal land. In fact, all the land used in the study qualified for the Conservation Reserve Program. And nobody eats swithgrass, so growing it for ethanol production isn’t going to increase the cost of anyone’s breakfast cereal.

The development of alternatives to corn may not be the favorite development for farmers who have gotten used to $4 a bushel prices for corn, but for everyone else the possibility of an alternative that’s cheaper, more efficient, and less damaging to the environment, whether it’s switchgrass or some other plant, is nothing but good news.