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Commodities of the future how about algae, manure?

OK, so it's morning on the farm, and you're ready to go check on your crop of algae, or see how your manure-powered generating plant is running…


Algae may well be “a crop of the future,” says Mark Zappi, Mississippi State University distinguished professor of chemical engineering. “Worldwide, it's becoming quite an oil crop,” he said at Gov. Haley Barbour's Beyond the City Limits conference on agriculture.

“We have the perfect climate and we've got the waste lagoons to support algae growth. It can produce twice as much oil as soy for making high-dollar nutraceutical products.”

A just-built $140 million plant in North Carolina is growing algae in huge fermenters, extracting the oil, purifying it, and selling it for use in many products, including biodiesel. Its proteins, omega 3 fatty acids, and other components can be used in nutritional products. The plant employs 150 at an average salary of $50,000. “That's quite a payroll for a local community,” he says.

And manure? “Believe it or not, it is going to become a competitive industrial commodity,” Zappi says. “You can put manure, in slurry form, into digesters and the microorganisms make biogas that's about 60 percent methane and 40 percent carbon dioxide, which can be used to generate electric power.” The electricity can be used to keep the plant running, with excess being purchased by the local utility for the power grid.

A poultry farmer in south Mississippi has cranked up the first manure biorefinery in the United States, Zappi says. “He uses litter from his poultry houses to make biogas, which generates electricity to run the plant and heat the poultry houses. Solids and liquids left from the process have a high nutrient value for crops. The poultry litter is also about 40 percent protein, and he's looking at ways to recover that, perhaps to grow algae.

“It's a simple operation, a technology that's ready for Mississippi, and it's economically viable when it's used to offset on-farm power costs.”

These are only two energy-related technologies which Mississippi is “well-positioned to capitalize on,” says Zappi.

Another is ethanol, either from corn or bulk biomass. (On Page 1 of this issue is an article about a proposed ethanol plant for the northwest Mississippi area.)

Biodiesel is “easy to make” from plain oils or animal fats, he says, and for every 10 gallons of biodiesel, 1 gallon of glycerine is produced, “which is worth about twice as much as the biodiesel.” A biodiesel plant near Las Vegas “is doing quite well, processing all the used cooking fats from the casino industry.”

The problem for soy diesel, Zappi says, is the high cost of soy oil. “What I see happening is combining soy and low quality oils to reduce the cost of biodiesel.”

MSU researchers discovered an organism that lives and works at temperatures of 200 degrees F and have been able to double the best worldwide production of ethanol from syngas. “They just blew away the record,” Zappi says.

“Microbiologists said there's no way a bacteria could survive those temperatures — but it does. We believe this process has great possibilities.”

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