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Texas A&M poised to play crucial role in bioenergy research and development

News flash! Corn alone will not satisfy the nation’s insatiable desire for energy.

“The utilization of the entire corn crop for ethanol could meet only 15 percent to 20 percent of the current gasoline consumption, i.e. a 15 percent to 20 percent blend,” says Bill McCutchen, associate director, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

McCutchen, speaking to the Ag Technology Conference held annually on the Texas A&M-Commerce Campus in December, said alternative crops and cellulosic energy conversion will be necessary in any “agricultural energy equation to maximize the contribution of agriculture to the energy problem.”

And that problem is big and growing. McCutchen pointed out that the United States has only 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves but consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil supply. “The United States uses more oil than the next five highest consuming nations combined,” he said.

Filling the nation’s automobile tanks, heating homes and running businesses requires a multi-faceted approach to energy development and McCutchen said Texas is ideally situated to make significant contributions to U.S. energy reserves.

“Texas is the energy friendly state,” he said. “We have the largest domestic production for both oil (26 percent) and natural gas (29 percent). We have 24 percent of the U.S. natural gas proved reserves, and we have an extensive energy infrastructure, including 26 refineries, 135,000 miles of natural gas pipelines and a large network of crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas pipelines and storage.”

And Texas has agriculture. “We have a large forest and crop biomass production capacity. The Panhandle alone supports 25 percent of the nation’s beef. And agri-geo diversity is extensive.”

McCutchen said a big advantage is the state’s “progressive farmers, ranchers and corporations.”

Texas boasts a huge acreage of biomass crops, including: more than 5 million acres of wheat, 3 million acres of sorghum, 5.5 million acres of cotton, 5 million acres of hay, 2 million acres of corn, around 200,000 acres in rice and 40,500 acres in sugarcane.

Energy independence goals are daunting. McCutchen recapped President Bush’s energy timeline:

–2012: make ethanol practical and competitive.

–2025: Replace 75 percent of all Middle Eastern oil imports.

–2030: Replace 30 percent of current U.S. petroleum consumption with biofuels.

Currently, the Midwest leads the nation, by a large margin, in ethanol production, 9.1 billion gallons per year in production or construction (potential). The South produces or has current construction potential for only 575 million gallons per year.

The Midwest advantage comes from grain production, but grain will not meet increased demand, McCutchen said. Even with increased acreage and genetic improvements from feed grains the country will be deficient in feed grain production “without significant new sources of carbohydrates to convert to fuel,” he said.

Using the entire corn crop for ethanol would meet only that 15 percent to 20 percent of the current gasoline consumption, (in a 15 percent to 20 percent blend).

He said several industries compete for corn: animal feed, exports, human food, and energy.

“Texas would need 440 million bushels of grain per year to reach a 10 percent blend of ethanol. And Texas is already a grain deficit state and requires corn for a large and growing livestock industry.” Texas A&M and other entities are looking at alternative biofuel sources including biomass crops, plant and animal waste, grain/seed oil crops, animal fat and plant oil and algae.

Biomass crops would be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, which may be “technically and economically viable within five to eight years. One of the primary variables for industry is the cost to produce the most efficient enzymes for cellulosic conversion to alcohol fuels,” McCutchen said. Cost of enzyme production is a major impediment in cellulosic conversion.

The U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced guaranteed loans to build six pilot plants in the United States. None of those will be in Texas, McCutchen said.

Perhaps they should be. “Two significant variables for successful development of a viable cellulosic biofuels industry are: feedstock supplies and the logistics of producing, harvesting, storing and transporting feedstocks. Texas A&M Agriculture is positioned to be a leader in these areas.”

Texas sorghum, for instance, makes sense, he said. Sorghum research currently underway may develop varieties capable of producing as much as 20 dry tons per acre. That compares with 13 tons from currently available sorghum varieties, 6 to 8 tons of switchgrass, 5 tons of poplar and 1.5 tons of corn stover. The economics also favor TAES sorghums with a $42 to $50 estimated cost to deliver to local plants for conversion to 25 million gallons per year. Current sorghum varieties would cost $50 to $60. Switchgrass costs would be $65 to $70; poplar would be $69 and corn stover $60.

McCutchen said tonnage will vary by location (North versus South) water availability and crop management practices. Sorghum holds promise because of its ability to produce in drought conditions and with less water than other crops and “produces more biomass than corn using 33 percent less water. Drought will be one of the next major traits in plant biotechnology,” McCutchen said.

He said Texas Experiment Station research on new sorghums is a more than a five-year endeavor with emphasis on biomass production. Benefits include low input, drought and pest tolerance, and high biomass accumulation. Producers may use existing equipment.

The one caveat is the necessity for cellulosic conversion technology.

Texas A&M research also looks to biodiesel production through conversion of animal fat or oil. “The average biodiesel plant produces two to three million gallons per year. The process of converting oil to biodiesel is $.41 per gallon and total cost of biodiesel is $2.95 per gallon.”

Possibilities for biodiesel feedstocks and potential per acre production (gallons per acre) include:

–Algae (theoretical) 10,000

–Palm, 560

–Jatropha, 180

–Castor, 130

–Canola, 115

–Sunflower, 100

–Soybeans, 50

McCutchen said “a new paradigm for dedicated bioenergy crops” may depend on production within a relatively short distance of conversion facilities.

Cooperation with corporate partners also will play a crucial role in energy independence. McCutchen said Texas A&M is working with Ceres, Chevron and General Atomics on bioenergy initiatives.

He said biofuel research and development goals include “developing dedicated lignocellulosic and oilseed feedstock crops. We’re also screening and characterizing land for biomass production using modeling; developing agronomic practices for sustainable production systems; and developing production logistics to produce, harvest, transport and store biomass.”

He said scientists still need to optimize the microbial/enzymatic systems to improve cellulosic and thermal conversion technologies. “We must evaluate economic policy and environmental issues, as well,” he said.

McCutchen said the Texas State legislature has approved initiatives to contribute to biofuels development.


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