The USDA-ARS Cotton Ginning Laboratory in Stoneville, Miss., is off the list.
"We are off the closing list; funding is secure; our future is bright," says Chris Delhom, Stoneville gin lab acting research leader.
"Now we can get back to ginning research," Delhom said in remarks to the recent Southern Cotton Ginners Association annual conference in Memphis, Tenn.
He talked about several key research targets, including contamination, energy conservation, gin control systems, logistics (flow), fiber quality and seed issues.
"The entire industry is working together on plastic contamination," Delhom said. "We want to keep it out of modules, out of the gin, out of the bale and out of textiles."
Ongoing and planned research will touch on numerous aspects of contamination. Field detection, Delhom said, is a starting point. Drones may be a useful tool.
He said detecting plastic becomes more difficult as the crop matures, but he thinks drones may be useful to determine how far plastic moves into the field. "Do we find it mostly on the edge or does litter move farther in?"
He said module feeder cameras being tested in Australia may offer hope for detection before it gets to the gin stand. "Cameras use a light system to monitor contaminants," he said. "Texas A&M is working on it.
"This may be an option to get rid of large pieces of plastic," he said.
Research also looks at plastic monitors in the gin. Scientists are looking at several systems. One prototype tested "removed no plastic" on the first test, Delhom said. After renovation, removal improved to 12% to 50%. "Engineers at Las Cruces (USDA-Ginning Laboratory) are testing it. It does show promise but needs work."
Another system, Visual Imaging Plastic Removal (VIPR), employs a system of cameras in the gin to detect module wrapping. "It detects plastic and blows it out. It doesn't work well on green and blue wrap, but it takes out 90 percent of the yellow," Delhom said. "It needs a function to reduce seedcotton loss."
He said the system kicks out other plastic contaminants, including shopping bags and mylar balloons. The monitor detects and pushes plastic items out based on color.
Delhom said scientists are also studying gin stand energy use. "We are ginning faster, so we are trying to optimize fans, optimize air flow. We know that gins are moving fast. All the recommendations in the ginner's handbook are based on 40 bales per hour. I don't think there's a new gin today that's going to be 40 bales an hour."
He mentioned the possibility of developing cotton that requires less energy to gin. "If we can produce cotton varieties that use less energy at the gin, that's going to help the ginner and it's going to help our sustainability."
He said gin control systems are due for revamping. "IntelliGin has been around for about 30 years and has not kept up," he said. "Better technology is available. We know the moisture content, we can know variety, we can know all sorts of other information. How do we utilize that information to help the gin run more efficiently? There's a lot more technologically available now. How do we get pieces of equipment to talk to each other?"
Logistics, how cotton moves from the gin into the marketing arena, is not as efficient as it should be, Delhom said. Cotton flow, he said, includes too many steps. "Bales are moved more than 30 times. There's a sustainability issue there."
He said Australia does it better. "They move their bales three to five times and they're out of the country. We're moving bales over 30 times.
"Can we provide data to the warehouse, so they do not randomly organize the bales the way they are now?"
That much handling, he added, damages bale covering and creates opportunity for contamination, including oil and grease. "Can we reduce the number of times a bale is moved?" he asked. "We can also reduce the cost of moving cotton."
Lint cleaners also may damage cotton quality. "It's a necessary evil," he said, "but it does cause damage. We're looking at a project we hope will be done later this year that features a fairly unique new cleaning system, a different system that gets away from solvents.
"We're working with lint cleaners at Las Cruces, Stoneville and at the micro-gin in Tifton to reduce lint cleaner damage."
Other research takes on damage to fiber length and strength. "We're trying to assess existing technology on lint cleaners to see where we can go, because we're doing a great job of producing high-quality cotton, but we need to maintain that quality and competitiveness because when prices go up, it makes manmade fibers more appealing to a textile mill."
Delhom was the fourth SCGA speaker to comment on cottonseed issues. "Seeds are getting smaller and weaker," he said. "We're seeing seed coat fragment issues."
He said cotton varieties show a wide range of cottonseed strength, but some of the most common cotton varieties "are getting weaker. We are doing a survey to address the issue."
He encouraged ginners to look for varieties that "are ginning funny. Take a sample and send it to us."
Delhom said the recent decision to take the gin lab off the closure list came with increased funding, $1.5 million, and the ability to re-staff.
"We needed four engineers," he said. "We just hired one. Our ginner will retire, so we will need to replace him. We also need two or more support staff members."
Those positions, he said, will be crucial to perform the research necessary to maintain cotton gin efficiency.
"Support from the cotton industry has been vital to us," he said.