Sowing the seeds of the future?

South Dakota State Roundup

Published September 1, 2004  | September 2004 issue

A new program at South Dakota State University (SDSU) has begun looking into alternative energy coming from the fields of the Great Plains.

The Sun Grant Initiative will fund research into using native prairie grasses, like switch grass, as sources of biomass for ethanol, biodiesel and other uses. The program will provide up to $25 million in 2005 and $50 million in 2006.

Using prairie grasses for biomass has several advantages over using grain. The grasses can grow on marginal land not useful for farming and with little or no fertilizer or pesticides. They also hold the promise of helping to restore part of the prairie ecosystem.

Some researchers are studying the best ways to grow and harvest the grasses, while others are examining which strains are ideal for fuel and how best to process them. Current research is funded by the Department of Energy, the Great Plains Institute for Sustainable Development and SDSU.

The grant will also fund research into grain, trees and crop residue as well as nonfuel alternatives to oil. One project is looking at the possibility of making plastics from distillers' grain.

Joe Mahon