Meeting demands of ethanol industry

Meeting demands of ethanol industry

Explosive growth in the ethanol industry is prompting many corn farmers to look for an alternative source for the alternative fuel.

One place they’re looking is in their fields after the corn harvest.

Scientists are developing ways to turn crop residues such as corn stover into ethanol, and demonstration plants could begin using such materials within the next year, experts said Tuesday during a conference at South Dakota State University.

The stover, which is all of the corn plant except the ear, is attracting attention because it’s abundant and can provide added income to farmers already supplying the ethanol industry, said Susan Andrews, an ecologist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But stover already plays an important role in corn fields by combating erosion, adding organic matter and nutrients to soil and increasing biological activity, she said.

”Residues perform many ecosystem services and their removal should not be taken lightly,” Andrews said.

Researchers are focusing on what percentage can be removed without hurting yields.

More residue can be removed from no-till land than from conventional plow fields, and cooler wet climates can tolerate removal better than dry fields. Low residue crops such as soy decompose fast, so farmers using a corn-soybean rotation should only remove stover and leave behind soy plant residue, Andrews said.

Gregg Carlson, an SDSU soil scientist, said farmers must consider stover’s value both as a natural fertilizer and a feed source when determining its worth on the open market.

Residues such as corn stover and wheat straw comprise just a fraction of the potential sources of cellulosic or biomass fuel, said Bruce Jamerson, president of VeraSun Energy Corp., a Brookings-based ethanol producer.

Energy crops, which include switchgrass, elephant grass and fast-growing trees such as aspen and willow, can produce higher tons per acre for the industry.

”There’s more energy in those plant materials than in residues,” Jamerson said.

Other potential alternative fuel sources include garbage and forestry resources such as chips, bark and sawdust.

Nearly 200 people attended Tuesday’s conference, titled ”Corn and Ethanol Production: Mapping a Path to a Sustainable Future.” It was sponsored by SDSU, the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

The cellulosic industry is in its infancy, so there’s an opportunity for corn growers to get involved early, said Brian Woldt, president of the utilization council.

Farmers are used to moving large volumes of material, dealing with legislative issues and creating a lot of capital, and companies developing new technologies will need that expertise.

Jamerson said biomass technology is still being developed but has the potential to revolutionize the ethanol and fuel industries.

The industry should see demonstration plants coming online within the next year or two and full commercialization in three to five years.

”There’s no question in my mind that this will come, and we have to be ready for it,” Jamerson said.

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