Economic and Sustainability Impacts of Yield and Composition Variation in Bioenergy Crops: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.)

Renee Happs, Rebecca Hanes, Andrew Bartling, John Field, Anne Harmon-Ware, Robin Clark, Thomas Pendergast IV, Katrien Devos, Erin Webb, Ali Missaoui, Yaping Xu, Shiva Makaju, Vivek Shrestha, Mitra Mazarei, Charles Stewart Jr., Reginald Millwood, Brian Davison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Economically viable production of biobased products and fuels requires high-yielding, high-quality, sustainable process-advantaged crops, developed using bioengineering or advanced breeding approaches. Understanding which crop phenotypic traits have the largest impact on biofuel economics and sustainability outcomes is important for the targeted feedstock crop development. Here, we evaluated biomass yield and cell-wall composition traits across a large natural variant population of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) grown across three common garden sites. Samples from 331 switchgrass genotypes were collected and analyzed for carbohydrate and lignin components. Considering plant survival and biomass after multiple years of growth, we found that 84 of the genotypes analyzed may be suited for commercial production in the southeastern U.S. These genotypes show a range of growth and compositional traits across the population that are apparently independent of each other. We used these data to conduct techno-economic analyses and life cycle assessments evaluating the performance of each switchgrass genotype under a standard cellulosic ethanol process model with pretreatment, added enzymes, and fermentation. We find that switchgrass yield per area is the largest economic driver of the minimum fuel selling price (MSFP), ethanol yield per hectare, global warming potential (GWP), and cumulative energy demand (CED). At any yield, the carbohydrate content is significant but of secondary importance. Water use follows similar trends but has more variability due to an increased dependence on the biorefinery model. Analyses presented here highlight the primary importance of plant yield and the secondary importance of carbohydrate content when selecting a feedstock that is both economical and sustainable.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1897-1910
Number of pages14
JournalACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2800-86950


  • bioethanol
  • biomass yield
  • composition
  • feedstock variability
  • life cycle analysis
  • minimum fuel selling price
  • switchgrass
  • techno-economic analysis


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