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Do you see a silk purse here?

Agriculture.com Staff 10/27/2006 @ 6:35pm

Near the north edge of the Alliant Energy power plant at Ottumwa, Iowa, sit three buildings. You'll hardly notice them next to a 600-foot-tall exhaust stack, the cooling towers, and a giant pile of coal. But inside, you'll get a glimpse of the future of farm-produced energy.

Two buildings are chock-full of big square bales of switchgrass hay, the feedstock of a new generation of biofuels. The third one houses a processing line to grind the switchgrass down to half-inch or smaller size particles, ready to mix with coal in the power plant burners.

While ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans are today's glamour fuels, other projects like this one will provide opportunities for farmers to grow and sell energy crops. Where the land isn't suitable for row crops, farmers will harvest and sell a deep-rooted perennial crop like switchgrass. The goal is to take agriculture's sow's ear -- hilly, fallow CRP land -- and make a silk purse.

Known as the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, this electric-generating plant is where they mix switchgrass with coal to heat the boilers and spin the turbines. Switchgrass replaces 2 1/2% of the coal.

Farmers here hope that the project moves from research to commercial. They'd like to own the processing plant, harvest their switchgrass, and sell it to be made into a fuel or a plastic product, much as other farmers own ethanol plants.

"We want to develop financially feasible products from switchgrass," says Stephen Gardner, president of Prairie Lands Biomass LLC, the farmer group. "It grows well on land that shouldn't be row cropped."

The project is a joint effort of USDA, Chariton Valley RC&D, Alliant Energy, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE has provided much of the funding, while USDA has granted permission to harvest the CRP acres (farmers participate voluntarily, without being paid). Alliant offered their biggest and newest power plant because "switchgrass contributes to a clean environment, and it's renewable," says Roger Morton, Alliant's senior project engineer.

In three test burns, the project has proven that switchgrass can be harvested in sufficient quantities and transported to the power plant to keep up with its nonstop appetite for fuel. The grass comes from a 70-mile radius and about 60 different farms. All the equipment to process it was engineered from scratch -- no place else in North America has run a grass biofuels project of this scale.

Among the items that had to be built are the harvester, a grapple fork to move bales, and a conveyor line with twine remover. The guts of the system is a two-stage mill that grinds the long-stem hay into dust and fines no more than a half inch long.

During testing, several truckloads of the square 3×4×8-foot switchgrass bales (round bales don't store, haul, or process as well) are hauled daily to the facility. After milling, the fine particles are blown through tubes to the power plant.

The test last spring burned the coal-switchgrass mix for three months, 24-7, going through 32,000 of the bales from 4,000 acres. When operating smoothly, the system grinds up and burns 10 to 11 tons of switchgrass an hour (about 20 big bales).

The CRP switchgrass has been harvested only in late fall and winter after the growing season to minimize damage to soil, water, and wildlife.

Near the north edge of the Alliant Energy power plant at Ottumwa, Iowa, sit three buildings. You'll hardly notice them next to a 600-foot-tall exhaust stack, the cooling towers, and a giant pile of coal. But inside, you'll get a glimpse of the future of farm-produced energy.

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