The idea of creating alternative fuels from biomass is not a new one, and it isn’t new to Kentucky either, as many projects have bloomed over the past few years to study everything from switchgrass to sugar beets.
Producing biofuels on the farm, however, is a bit different and is the focus of a relatively new project being led by the University of Kentucky.
Sue Nokes, professor and department chair of biosystems and agricultural engineering, is heading up the research. She said the project is sponsored by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and was funded by a $6.9 million grant received in July 2011.
The premise of the project is to take biomass grown, harvested and stored on the farm and convert it into a liquid composed of fuel and organic acids that would get picked up in much the same way milk is picked up at a dairy farm. The mixture would then be taken to a processing facility and refined into useable fuels and other products.
The project is just in the research phase and much of what is proposed is theoretical, but with an infrastructure basically in place, so far it seems to be very obtainable, according to Nokes.
“The farmer would be processing the material into an intermediate product. The process is condensing the energy in the biomass so that what goes off site is a lot more energy dense than what we started with,” she said.
Getting the biomass to this stage is important from an economical standpoint because it cuts down on transportation costs compared to moving the biomass separately, said Nokes.
Materials that could serve as potential fuel stocks include corn stover, wheat straw, switchgrass and miscanthus. The two grasses are widely known for their use in biomass projects because of their high yields, which make them particularly attractive to this venture.
Nokes said that ultimately one of the end products produced from the project would be butanol that could be used as an alternative fuel for gasoline.
“You hear a lot about ethanol, but the USDA is looking at butanol as an alternative to ethanol,” she said. “It has better fuel properties than ethanol.”
Currently, a mandate in this country requires a certain amount of ethanol be used in gasoline and most ethanol is produced from corn. That usage has come under fire by many groups that say the use of corn as a fuel feedstock has driven up prices for livestock producers, thus creating higher prices for consumers. Not only does this project have the potential to create that alternative for ethanol, but it would bring a new revenue source to the farm.
“We envision this as a product a farmer would sell to a refinery,” Nokes said.
The refinery, in turn, would separate the mixture into a number of products in addition to butanol, including ethanol, acetone and possibly acetic and lactic acids.
In addition to giving farmers a money-making opportunity, it would do so without using land on which they currently grow other crops.