Research effort seeks solutions to energy needs

The bar has been set high: one-third of the U.S. fuel supply to come from biofuel production and 900 million tons of biofuel stock to come from agriculture.

“That’s 100,000 trailer loads per day,” says Bob Avant, Texas AgriLife Research Bioenergy Program director at College Station.

To meet that challenge, Texas A&M AgriLife researchers from multiple disciplines are evaluating crops, production systems, harvest techniques and transportation to develop a system to help decrease the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“We’re looking at a field-to-fuel approach,” Avant says. “We need a system that goes from genetics to fuel conversion. Without an efficient system, the process will not be sustainable.”

Avant says Texas A&M is uniquely qualified to serve its role as a “national leader in bioenergy and bioproducts research, development and commercialization because of its programs, expertise, infrastructure and partnerships.

The bioenergy effort may tap into: 14 academic departments; 13 research stations with capabilities to produce and evaluate various crops and processes under climate and soil conditions that range from desert to high rainfall and tropical to temperate; 400 faculty members and 1,600 employees. The university also enjoys strategic partnerships with the feedstock, chemical, equipment and conversion industries.

Avant says sponsored research programs with the state of Texas and federal agencies also enhance the bioenergy program.

Initiatives will include research into dedicated energy crop production for advanced biofuels and bioproducts; economically sustainable oilseed crops for biodiesel and bioproducts; and algae development for biodiesel, bioproducts and jet fuel.

Avant says researchers are evaluating germplasm to create “a wider base” of materials. Some new hybrids likely will have more lignin, others less, depending on the conversion process.

“Our main goal is to produce lots of biomass per acre.” He says 2 tons per acre will be a starting point. “For high biomass crops, we will need a lot of management and increased efficiency.”

He says biofuels may follow a cotton industry template. “With cotton, gins are located within 30 to 60 miles of production.” The close proximity of raw material to processing facility improves the economics of moving cotton from field to factory.

“Biorefineries need to be within a 30 to 60 mile haul-in radius from production as well,” he says. Transporting the fuel stock long distances will decrease efficiency. “If we ignore the logistics, production will not be sustainable,” Avant says. “We need a strong emphasis on management and the logistics of storage and transport. We need high tonnage production and we need agronomic research to determine how to take that tonnage off the field without taking away too many nutrients.”

He says reduced tillage systems will be critical “to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Texas researchers are also looking at ways to evaluate sorghum production. “It’s best in rotation, one year in four. We’re also looking at using less desirable land, such as reclaimed mine sites and retired conservation reserve program acreage.”

The complexity of the overall goal of reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil demands a multi-disciplined approach, Avant says. That’s why plant breeders, agronomists, engineers, and scientists from other disciplines are working with multiple crops and numerous production practices to develop the most efficient systems to produce biofuels.

In addition to sorghum (forage and sweet types) scientists are looking at other forage plants, as well as algae as biofuel sources.

In subsequent articles Farm Press will feature scientists from various departments working together to develop an efficient, sustainable process of producing biofuels.

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TAGS: Corn
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