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Harvested sunshine will power Texas vehicles

Years down the road, and maybe not all that many, folks may pull up to a service station pump and fill their adaptable automobiles or pickup trucks (this is Texas after all) with fuel made from a nearby mesquite farm, a pond full of algae, or residue from the last cotton, grain or soybean crop.

Folks have to do considerable research on how to turn these materials into efficient fuels and someone has to invest in the plants and transportation systems to get them to consumers, but non-food crops or what is often considered waste from food and fiber crops will soon augment grain as feedstock for bioenergy.

“We'll be burning sunshine,” says Travis Miller, associate department head for the soil and crop science department at Texas A&M, during a recent biofuel producer meeting in Belton, Texas.

Miller says grain is currently easier to get fuel from than cellulose. “Cellulose is more difficult but we can do it,” he says. “We, ag producers, are the long term answer to energy needs.”

To meet those needs in Texas, however, producers will need to think outside the hopper box and consider peanut hulls, dairy and livestock waste, poultry litter, wheat straw, cotton gin waste, forest and woody product residue from various sources including paper mills, and algae and other microorganisms.

He says the country has 150.7 million tons of crop residue and 3.68 million tons of urban wood waste products that could be converted into energy.

Ethanol now ranks as the No. 2 source of U.S. energy, ahead of hydroelectric energy and with a mandate to provide 30 percent of the country's energy by 2030.

Grain production in Texas does not “come close” to meeting the state's energy demands, he said. Producers need to look at other sources to meet growing needs.

Ethanol plants

And they may need to push a bit. Four ethanol plants are currently under construction in the Texas High Plains. Six are planned in the region.

“We don't have enough grain to handle the opportunities at current production levels. And we still have to take care of the livestock industry. We need alternate crops.”

Miller said several prospects will row in Texas but he cautioned producers to consider:

  • If the crop is adaptable to local conditions.

  • Will it produce a significant net balance of feedstock to fuel?

  • Does a market exist for any byproduct produced?

  • Will the crop be a primary crop or one that uses residue for energy and what market exists for each?

Miller said possibilities include sweet and forage sorghums, wheat and rice residues, cotton stalks, switchgrass, johnsongrass, bermudagrass, kenaf, sugar beets, sugarcane, mesquite, Chinese tallow, willow, potatoes and other fruit or vegetable crops, and algae.

“Forage and sweet sorghums are adapted, produce high yields are water efficient and may be used as both grain and stover. Harvest equipment used for traditional hay and silage works well.”

Switchgrass testing

Miller says considerable research is under way on switchgrass, a native plains grass that provides significant biomass after establishment. “Energy conversion is high and it yields from 2 tons to 12 tons per acre, depending on production systems.”

Miller says switchgrass is better adapted to plains areas than to blacklands soils.

He says residue from traditional grain crops offers significant amounts of cellulose for energy conversion.

Mesquite may provide as much as 400 gallons of ethanol per acre, Miller says. Chinese tallow, a noxious weed, provides an oil seed. “We need research on it,” he says.

Cotton, sunflowers, soybeans, and canola/rapeseed offer possibilities for biodiesel.

“We plant as many as 6 million acres of cotton each year,” Miller says. With an average yield of 947 bushels per acre, and 18 percent oil yield, biofuel production could range from 20 gallons to 22 gallons per acre.

“We now have smaller cottonseed because breeders have concentrated on lint yield. So we get less oil.”

Peak acreage for sunflowers in Texas is 300,000 but the crop may be a promising option for biodiesel. Miller says Coastal Bend trials show a 1,200 to 2,000 pound per acre yield and 98 gallons of oil per acre.

Canola/rapeseed “has a high concentration of oil (40 percent) and produces as much as 89 gallons per ace. Some harvest problems may limit production.

Ricin caution

Castor boasts a 50 percent oil yield, up to 140 gallons per acre but production is restricted because Castor beans may be used to produce ricin, a highly toxic material that's on the Homeland Security list.

“Research is under way to reduce ricin,” Miller says. “It is well adapted but limited because of Homeland Security concerns.”

Jatropha, a plant grown in India for fuel and in South America for cooking oil, may produce a significant amount of oil per acre.

“We have no research in Texas,” Miller says.

Pickleweed grows well in salty soils and has a fairly high oil content. “We need to look at it.”

Miller says several species of algae produce oil in “warm, saltwater ponds. Production potential is 5,000 gallons per acre. That's exciting.”

He says funding for oilseed research has been limited but with renewed interest in crops as fuel sources more funding may be available. We need partnerships, planning, and innovation to provide food, fiber and fuel. We will see more biofuel stations and we will use (fuel) products produced on the land.”

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