Bioenergy experts to address AgTech day

Elizabeth Hood is an expert at breaking down walls and taking stuff apart. But she prefers enzymes and microscopes to bulldozers and wrecking balls to do the job, a talent that Mid-South farmers should find interesting when she speaks at the AgTechnology Field Day, July 19, at Agricenter International in Memphis.

The Arkansas State University researcher runs a research laboratory on campus in which enzymes are used to digest cell walls to aid in breaking down plant material into component sugars. According to Hood, who is associate vice-chancellor for research and technology at ASU, the technology will enable the development of the “cellulose to ethanol” industry.

This technology should be commercially available within the next three years, according to Hood, who notes the Department of Energy has already co-funded with a number of companies to build several cellulose-to-ethanol production plants. Several studies indicate the Mid-South and Southeast have the available land and resources to grow huge amounts of cellulosic feedstock such as switchgrass.

Hood doesn't see cellulosic-based systems replacing corn-based systems, but it certainly has the potential to add to it in a big way. “Even if we took all the corn that is planted and turned it into ethanol, we could barely get to E-10 (all fuel would contain 10 percent ethanol). There's just not enough corn. Cellulose will produce many billions of gallons of ethanol, once the technology is commercialized and the plants built.”

Hood stresses that change is not going to take place overnight. “We're going to have to develop technologies to collect biomass and develop interest in new crops. Farmers are going to have to help us understand their issues. They are really going to have to be actively involved into switching over to new crops so we can make enough to support the industry.

“It's going to grow from the ground up. It's going to take not just us telling farmers what they ought to do, but farmers telling us what they can do.”

Another concern is whether or not producers can reap the same value from cellulose they're currently enjoying from corn. Hood says while cellulose won't generate the gross revenues of corn, input costs could be decidedly less, and profits similar.

“There is one model to harvest not only the corn kernels, but to harvest the stalks too. That would provide another income source hopefully without an additional input. If they switched to switchgrass, presumably they would have fewer inputs and their profit margins per acre may actually be higher. Switchgrass is a perennial and it grows well without irrigation and without a lot of nitrogen fertilizer.

“I would like to see small farmer cooperatives produce ethanol on a relatively small scale in local communities so everyone could get a piece of the action,” Hood added. “I don't think this is going to be a conglomerate-type business, although I'm in the minority there. I'm very interested in developing technologies that are simple enough to be done at a cooperative level.”

Another bioenergy speaker, Pete Moss, president, FBA Consulting, in Memphis, will discuss how the Mid-South can prosper from trends in biofuel, not only from the production of feedstocks for biofuel, but from creating the fuels, too.

“The further you can move into the chain, the more money you'll be able to make. There are different models for how the farmer can do this — both small scale and large scale — and you have to look at each one separately. It's all end-user driven, designing models to meet the market's needs.”

Moss believes feedstocks that will drive Mid-South ethanol and biodiesel production in the coming years are likely to be from cellulose and higher content oilseeds such as canola. “They grow corn and soybeans in the Midwest and the fact that the Mid-South is a lot more flexible and not necessarily tied to corn and soybeans gives us some opportunities to do things differently. Farmers need to be involved in the process.”

Biofuel is here to stay, Moss says. “The market today really seems to be pulling biofuels. That's a big difference compared to previous attempts to push it into the market.”

The field day will consist of three tours and features the latest technological developments from Syngenta, Stoneville, Delta and Pine Land, DuPont, UAP, Helm, EMD Crop BioScience, AgriStar, Cropland Genetics, FiberMax, Dow AgroSciences, Helena, Monsanto and BASF. Tours start at 7 a.m. The bioenergy session will begin at 11 a.m. and conclude with lunch.

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