As Kevin Drum points out switchgrass was the second most surprising thing mentioned in the State of the Union address after human-animal hybrids. I still haven’t figured that one out. A friend of mine mentioned that some friends of hers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were very excited by that reference since the lab has a project to turn switchgrass into methanol. I decided to see if I could find more on it so I googled switchgrass and restricted my search to lbl.gov. I found an article by Steven Chu, Nobel prize winner and director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. It appears that switchgrass is not yet a solution but LBNL is working to make it one.
In fact, we have a project that has been going on in which one takes these micro-organisms and study their genome such as to determine a pathway which lead to the digestion of the cellulose and convert it to hydrogen. However, hydrogen is not our favorite fuel, so we prefer to make ethanol or methanol. The question is: Whether can we modify the existing plants or organisms or design new ones that can directly produce energy by photosynthesis? This is yet another scientific challenge that has some hope. However, the first order of business is to mutate a standard plant, convert it into biomass, and improve the conversion of biomass into chemical energy.