Under the Microscope: MU Researcher Experiments with Switchgrass for Biofuel

Apr 2, 2015

Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the Bradford Research Center in Boone County, Mo, clutches a handful of switchgrass on March 17, 2015. Switchgrass is a perennial, warm-season grass that’s native to Missouri and most of the United States.
Credit Micheala Sosby

Veterinarian Lynn Steele grows switchgrass on his farm to feed his hundred head of cattle.  He favors the wild-growing grass over other commercial feeds because it’s cheap.

“Even when the price is high [for switchgrass], it’s 4, 5, 6 dollars a pound for seed,” Steele said. “Indian grass and Big Blue Stem 12 and 15 dollars a pound. You get quite a bit of investment there.”

Turning this cattle food into something we can also feed our furnaces is a project Missouri researcher Tim Reinbott has undertaken. Reinbott is the superintendent of MU’s Bradford Research Center, and he burned switchgrass instead of wood over the winter in order to keep the 6,000-square-foot property heated. Reinbott hopes his research will eventually lead to residential furnaces adopting switchgrass as burn material.

Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the Bradford Research Center, uses a torch to ignite a 250-pound bale of switchgrass on March 17, 2015 in Boone County, Mo. Switchgrass bales produce less ash than wood when burned.
Credit Brianna Schroer

The research center’s furnace was big enough to accommodate 250-pound bales of the native grass. But squeezing those bales into residential furnaces isn’t a possibility yet.

“While it’s going to be more economical for the farmer to sell switchgrass in 2,000-pound bales, it needs to be at a size that a consumer could handle, like in 70 or 80-pound square bales,”  Kelly Smith, Marketing and Commodities Director at the Missouri Farm Bureau said. “I’d imagine a consumer would pay more for something that’s less bulky.”

Although switchgrass effectively heated the Bradford Research Center over the winter, some still question the practicality of making it widely used source of energy.

Veterinarian Lynn Steele checks on his cattle after feeding them on March 18, 2015 in Montgomery County, Mo. Steele has 100 cows on his property.
Credit Micheala Sosby

“I think there’d be a lot of interest if we could get a market that’s lucrative enough to compete with corn and soybeans,” Steele said. “I think there’s lots of guys who would do that.”

Smith said that when farmers see a profit in growing switchgrass for biofuel, they will start making accommodations to their crop, and burning switchgrass has to become more convenient for consumers to get them to change their habits. Until then, Reinbott said he plans to continue his research with grass as an alternative source of heat energy. 

Credit Brianna Schroer