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Where the biofuel rubber meets the road

Agriculture.com Staff 05/03/2006 @ 2:43pm

Ethanol and biodiesel may get most of the attention, but there are other biofuel projects in the research and development stage that will also benefit farmers. One interesting one is taking place at an electrical power plant near Ottumwa, Iowa. Called the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, it is burning switchgrass harvested from southern Iowa CRP acres to supplement the plant's primary fuel, coal from Wyoming.

If successful and this project moves from R&D to commercial, farmers from places more suitable to grass than row crops will benefit by selling a grass crop from their fragile soils. They may also take an ownership position in the fuel processing plant, much as they have in ethanol plants.

The Iowa project is a cooperative effort of USDA, Alliant Energy (owner of the power plant), and the U.S. Department of Energy. Every day, several truckloads of switchgrass hay are hauled to the facility to be processed and fed into the power plants boiler system. The switchgrass replaces only about 2.5% of the coal. Earlier tests with switchgrass proved that it has a positive effect on the discharge emissions from the plant. Organizers are now in the midst of another test "burn" in an attempting to prove that switchgrass mixed with the coal doesn't foul the plants huge burners that turn water into steam to drive a turbine. This test, due to end this month, is burning the coal-switchgrass mix for 3 straight months, 24-7.

A custom-made grapple fork lifts and places four big square bales (3x4x8 feet) of switchgrass at a time onto the conveyor belt in the biomass processing plant. When everything is operating smoothly, the system grinds up and burns 10-11 tons of switchgrass an hour, or about 20 of the big bales. The switchgrass for the project has mostly been harvested from CRP acres within a nine-county area, through a special dispensation from USDA. Farmers are not paid for the grass at this point, and participate voluntarily. Grass is only harvested in late fall and winter, after the growing season, to cause the least damage to soil, water, and wildlife. Some farmers think the late fall harvesting actually enhances habitat.

Everything about this biofuels plant has had to be engineered from scratch. For instance, right before the switchgrass bales enter the mills that turn the hay into a fuel, the plastic twines have to be removed. One knife cuts them, another pulls them off and drops them in a disposal container. Giant magnets also detect and stop any metal (such as baler pickup teeth) from getting into the grinder system. The "guts" of the biofuel processing system is a two-stage milling procedure that turns the long-stem hay into dust and fine stems that are no more than a half-inch in length.

Biofuels experts and enthusiasts from around the world are watching the project closely. Whether a biomass crop like switchgrass is turned into a power plant fuel, ethanol, or something else, the system for processing it will likely be patterned after this system in rural Iowa. Since the President's State of the Union address, in which he championed the development of biomass renewable fuels, much attention has been focused on this plant. "It really jump-started the interest," says project manager Bill Belden.

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