HOUSTON -- Since President George W. Bush mentioned switchgrass in his State of the Union address Jan. 31, this common North American plant, usually overlooked as it grows along the highway or in fallow fields, is suddenly drawing attention as a possible source of ethanol.

"It does not really appear that ethanol from any feedstock is a realistic long-term solution" to lowering gasoline consumption, cautions Brian K. Tully in the March issue of World Energy Monthly Review. In fact, he adds, "neither next-generation diesel nor ethanol shows much promise as an immediate substitute for Middle Eastern petroleum imports used for fuel."

That being the case, he concludes, "it seems like a prudent course of action to develop both as stop-gaps against our ever-increasing demand for fuel."

Switchgrass as a direct competitor to gasoline is "insignificant," notes Tully. "Yet there is some merit to this zany idea about converting a formerly wild, seven-foot-high domestic grass into fuel." Put alongside its correct competition -- not gasoline, but other ethanol sources such as corn and sugar -- "it looks like not only a contender, but a winner."

Per acre, corn yields 330 gallons of ethanol, sugar yields 630 gallons and switchgrass 1,150 gallons.

"Purely in terms of a fuel feedstock, one would be hard-pressed to find a tougher, faster-growing native plant that requires such relatively low maintenance," Tully writes.

Elsewhere in the same issue, however, the "Spotlight on the Americas" feature notes the high cost of converting switchgrass to ethanol: three to five times the cost of converting corn. Still, scientists are optimistic about lowering the production costs, and the high yield speaks in the plant's favor.

Also in the "Americas" section is a look at mine safety in light of the past year's devastating losses of life, the Air Force's use of wind power and San Francisco's collection of a unique fuel source: dog poop.

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SOURCE: World Energy via Business Wire.