An ambitious, University based, USDA sponsored research project investigating
the sustainable production and distribution of bioenergy and
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Ken Vogel – Leading Progress on Switchgrass

By Jake Miller
Above: Dr. Ken Vogel
Switchgrass has been a hot topic ever since President Bush referred to it in his State of the Union Address. No one has contributed to the development of switchgrass as a leading bioenergy crop as much as Ken Vogel, a retired USDA ARS Geneticist who worked with switchgrass his entire career. In the past 25 years researchers have made strides in the advancement of growing switchgrass for bioenergy, largely due to the work of Ken Vogel and his co-researchers.

In the 1970’s the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) began an energy research program to develop and demonstrate cropping systems for liquid biofuels, biomass electric power and bioproducts. In 1991, USDOE’s Oakridge National Laboratory, after screening more than 30 woody and perennial crops, selected switchgrass and hybrid poplar as model energy crops. Switchgrass was chosen because it was a perennial, productive in many climates and soil types in the United States and had great potential for broad distribution. Additionally, it was compatible with conventional farming practices, easy to grow, showed high yield potential, and had excellent conservation attributes.

Vogel was one of the researchers USDOE selected to advance switchgrass as a viable energy crop. Vogel was stationed as a USDA-ARS scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. In addition to the extensive breeding and management research conducted by Vogel and his co-researchers at the University of Nebraska, he also conducted cooperative research under agreements with scientists at Iowa State University, Purdue, and the University of Wisconsin. Having different breeding locations allowed the development of different switchgrass strains adapted to different climates, geographical locations, and soil types. It also helped to validate improved management practices at other locations.
The research was successful. Within ten years large-scale fertility trials and advanced genetics work were underway to create new hybrid cultivars of switchgrass.

By 1998 switchgrass had shown its prowess as a bioenergy crop in research trials and it was time to test if it could be economically viable at the farm level. Vogel and his co-researchers launched the “Northern Plains Field Scale Production and Economic Trials” on ten commercial farms in Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. After taking into account the cost of land and production costs for a 10-year cycle, switchgrass was determined to be economically viable for farmers, a huge milestone for Vogel and his teams. In addition, Vogel and his co-researchers used the data from this study to determine the net energy efficiency of switchgrass when grown as a biomass energy crop. The net energy analyses demonstrated that switchgrass produced five times more energy when grown as a biofuel feedstock than what it took to grow the crop. These two major research accomplishments heralded switchgrass into the new millennium.

In 2007 President Bush’s state of the state speech galvanized national interest in switchgrass and other bioenergy crops and over $300 million in grant dollars for bioenergy research. Some of these funds were used for regional yield tests, validating the high yielding performance of ‘Liberty’ switchgrass. ‘Liberty’ switchgrass, developed by Vogel over a 20 year period, is the first biomass type switchgrass developed for use in the Midwest states. Its yields are about 40% greater than the forage type switchgrass cultivars.

In 2010 USDA’s Vogel and Rob Mitchell teamed with Iowa State University’s Ken Moore and Robert Brown to to develop a team using the pyrolysis platform to convert switchgrass and other feedstocks into drop-in fuels. The team developed a proposal, funded by USDA NIFA that led to the birth of CenUSA Bioenergy.

The CenUSA project has been able to increase switchgrass biomass yields by using ‘Liberty’ and associated improved management practices. Vogel knows it’s still an uphill battle before switchgrass is a widespread energy crop. “The primary drivers for producing more switchgrass will be help environmental issues such as; water quality, increased soil erosion due, and increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the air,” said Vogel. However, with Vogel’s career-long contributions, continued involvement, and CenUSA continuing on his work it’s safe to say that the potential of switchgrass will become increasingly known and more people will begin to give it a try.