Fill ’er up with switchgrass. Not long ago, the question at the pump was always, “regular or unleaded?”

Today, leaded gasoline isn’t even an option in most developed countries. And with the need to drastically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, the question of the future just might be “switchgrass or algae?”

Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious. In their raw form you couldn’t run your car on either. However, both organisms have the potential to be made into biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. And that, if done in a careful and sustainable way, could greatly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.


However, in spite of some of the hoopla about biofuels, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Yes, you can already get ethanol mixed with your gasoline or biodiesel mixed with your regular diesel in many North American cities. In fact, in countries like Brazil, gasoline is always blended with at least 20 per cent ethanol and you can easily get 100 per cent ethanol for your car. So far, so good. But these biofuels have problems, too.

All biofuels still have environmental, economic or social costs. If these fuels are to be sustainable, such costs need to be minimized.

One promising biofuel that scores well in preliminary studies is cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass. According to results of a recent study published in the prestigious journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, switchgrass grown and managed for biofuel can produce 500 per cent more renewable energy than the energy it needs to be grown and processed.

Another benefit of switchgrass, and part of the reason for its success in the trials, is it is a native Prairie grass that grows on agriculturally marginal land. This means fewer chemical inputs are required to maintain the crop and makes it less likely that growing large crops of switchgrass would take away land that would otherwise be used for food production.

Biofuels have the potential to help reduce pollution and global warming emissions, as well as the regional conflicts caused by our dependence on fossil fuels. But choosing the right fuel crop for the right geographic area is critical, as is making sure that all social and environmental factors are considered. If we can overcome those hurdles, you can look for more biofuels made from waste wood, used vegetable oil, and yes, even algae, at our pumps in the future.

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Dr. David T. Suzuki is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is the co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

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