A growing U.S. agricultural biomass industry can help meet the catapulting energy and fuel demands of a global population that the United Nations predicts could reach 9 billion by 2050.

“We need to envision and implement biomass-based, highly productive food, fuel, and energy production systems with available land and water to meet the increasing demands of the growing world population,” says Dan Putnam, University of California Cooperative Extension forage specialist.

Terrestrial biofuels produced from crops, he says, is one way to meet those demands.

Biomass production is a developing industry in the U.S., gaining favor and interest among farmers and other agricultural entrepreneurs.

The industry, still in its infancy, involves growing plants for biomass that are trucked to a conversion facility, where plant wall cellulose is broken down for conversion to glucose sugar and then cellulosic ethanol. Biomass can also be co-fired with coal and wood to produce heat, steam, and electricity at bioenergy refineries.  

Existing grain-based ethanol will continue to serve as an important farm-grown fuel in the future; additionally, there are benefits from the high quality distiller’s grain produced in the conversion process, which can be used for livestock feed. Cellulosic conversion is viewed as the next generation of liquid farm fuel technology.

The list of current and potential biomass crops include the grasses switchgrass and miscanthus, plus high biomass sorghum, energycane (high biomass sugarcane), alfalfa, and other crops. These can offer farmers the opportunity to diversify their cropping systems and boost their income stream.

Opponents argue that biomass production is a food-versus-fuel issue — taking land out of food crop production to provide fuel and energy.

“Biomass crops are engineered for production on marginal land and require significantly less water and fewer crop inputs,” says Frank Hardimon, sales manager for Ceres, Inc., a biomass seed and technology company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “Biomass crops can bring life to marginal land.”

Ceres is in the race to develop and market low carbon, non-food grasses and other crops for advanced biofuels and biopower. Its trait pipeline includes drought- and salt-tolerance plus improved nitrogen utilization.

“These are some of the key traits necessary to build the biomass industry to scale and to facilitate the wide-scale adoption of energy grasses,” Hardimon says.

Ceres sells seed varieties of perennial switchgrass and annual crop high biomass sorghum to farmers under its Blade Energy Crops brand. The company has lines of sweet sorghum, miscanthus, and energycane in the developmental pipeline.

The switchgrass lines were developed under a partnership with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, headquartered at Ardmore, Okla.

Texas A&M University provided input into high-biomass sorghum, a crop which towers 15 feet to 18 feet in height and generates yields in 90 to 100 days.

Switchgrass takes two to three years to reach maturity, Hardimon says. The crop stand longevity is seven years to 10 years.

Hardimon said, “After five to seven years, a farmer should evaluate the stand. If a new variety on the market can increase yields by 30 percent or more, the rotation of some acreage to a newer variety should be considered.”

Switchgrass is widely adapted to the Southeast, Midwest, and Southwest, where it is currently grown as a pasture plant for forage for cattle. 

Switchgrass is a C4 grass, which means it has an efficient biochemical system for fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. Switchgrass also has a modest demand for nitrogen fertilizers.Switchgrass is probably the most widely tested biomass crop in the U.S.

Genera Energy LLC this year opened one of the world’s first cellulosic ethanol demonstration plants at Vonore, Tenn., where switchgrass and corncobs are converted to cellulosic ethanol for liquid fuels.