The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has several research projects under way related to biofuels and reducing the United States’ dependence on imported oil.

Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy put more faith in the college by awarding a multi-year, $6.9 million grant to improve the economics for biorefineries by using on-farm processing to convert biomass to a mixture of butanol, ethanol, acetone and organic acids.

In a USDA news release, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the departments are sponsoring $42 million in research grants to eight recipients to spur innovation in bioenergy by developing renewable resources that produce energy more efficiently and in a sustainable way.

“Permanently reducing our dependence on foreign oil and getting a handle on out of control gas prices will require our brightest scientists, our smartest companies and strategic investments in research,” he said.

“Advances made through this research will help boost rural economies by developing and testing new processing facilities and profitable, energy-rich crops that U.S. farmers and foresters will grow.”

Lead researcher for the UK project is Sue Nokes, a professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. Nokes and others in her department will work with other UK departments and colleges, as well as other universities and industry partners to achieve their goals.

The project will integrate input from experts in a variety of disciplines, including biosystems engineers, plant and soil scientists, horticulturists, chemical engineers and economists.

“This grant will allow us to study biomass from production through processing together as a system including the environmental and economic impact,” Nokes said. “We’ve not had the resources to do that before.”

Can reduce dependence on foreign oil

Nokes believes it’s technically feasible to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil in the next decade, but the first step is to develop a reliable biomass feedstock supply system using agricultural residues such as corn stover and wheat straw, and energy crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus, with enhanced plant genetics, improved crop-management practices to increase yield, reduced environmental impacts and reduced biomass harvest and transportation costs.

“After that, we have to develop the technical and economic feasibility of on-farm storage and processing of high-density biomass feedstocks to enhance biomass conversion to value-added products,” Nokes said.

“So we’ll put the bales into a bunker silo and process the material in a similar manner to silage, but with a different microorganism so that it produces butanol — an alcohol which can substitute for fuel.”

Nokes said the final stage objective of this project will be to develop and validate integrated geographic information system (GIS)-based economic and life-cycle analysis models to provide strategic guidance to develop an on-farm processing system.

Researchers will use the models to evaluate different landscape-scale management scenarios and their effect on food and energy production and the environment, including the potential of marginal or abandoned lands for biofuel production. 

“We want to determine the incentives required to increase ecosystem services and biofuel production when they conflict with maximum farm profitability,” Nokes added.

“We expect the system to allow farmers or cooperatives to produce biofuels and biochemicals cost-competitively with petroleum. These products will be concentrated on-farm, so the product stream will be economical to transport to a refinery to be further upgraded, largely eliminating the high cost of transporting raw biomass.

In addition, the biomass will be supplied in a sustainable manner that will not increase soil erosion or net greenhouse gas emissions, yet will still maintain farm profitability.”

In the USDA news release, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said by developing and commercializing advanced biofuels, the United States can create new economic opportunities for rural communities, provide consumers with new options to fuel their vehicles and reduce dependence on imported oil.

"The projects selected… will help produce affordable, renewable biofuels right here in the U.S. to power our cars and trucks,” Chu said. 

For more information on the Kentucky project and details on a national scale, see http://southeastfarmpress.com/government/southeast-institutions-share-biomass-research-funds?page=2.