U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers have developed an inexpensive way to grade the ethanol potential of perennial grasses at the biorefinery’s loading dock.

The researchers developed the first use of near-infrared sensing (NIRS) to measure 20 components in switchgrass biomass that determine its potential value to biorefiners. These components include cell wall sugars, soluble sugars and lignin. With this information, 13 traits can be determined, including the efficiency of the conversion from sugars to ethanol.

Predictions of actual ethanol yields were based on hexoses, or six-carbon sugars, in the plant cell wall and as soluble sugars. Since additional ethanol could be produced from pentose or five-carbon sugars as conversion technology improves, the NIRS method can be used to estimate what the total potential yield of ethanol or other biofuels would be if all sugars in the plant were converted