Grass ‘n’ go
Animals may not be the only creatures in the near future to turn grass into fuel. Humans may be able to as well.
Instead of filling up our stomachs, we might be filling up our cars.
“There is a very, very strong and active effort in the United States to get this whole biomass to biofuel thing commercial and widespread,” research agronomist Calvin Pearson said.
Pearson works on research and as a professor at Colorado State University’s Fruita Agricultural Experiment Station at 1910 L Road.
His research now largely focuses on converting grass to biofuel. Pearson began researching biomass to convert to biofuel in 2008 after the Energy Independence and Security Act was passed in 2007. According to the EPA’s website, this act increased the required volume of renewable fuel blended into transportation fuel from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022, which led to the establishment of many similar research projects across the country.
“We need renewable sources of fuel in the U.S. That’s a no-brainer. We can’t use corn because it competes as a food and feed source,” Pearson said.
According to Pearson, in other parts of the country biomass researchers focus on trees and even sugarcane to convert to biofuel. But he said those are not options for the drier, higher and generally cooler climates in some Western states.
Cool-season perennial grasses grow well in the West, which is why Pearson has focused his research on them. He is also researching biofuel options with alfalfa and cactus. Pearson has conducted research on cactus for the past four years, but said he will end that project this year because of cactus’ perceived lack of viability as a biofuel.
Pearson’s research focuses on tall fescue, pasture-type grasses, native grasses, wild rye crosses, alfalfa and even the warm-season switchgrass, utilizing different fertilizer and water inputs.
The Fruita site is one of three locations on the Western Slope where biomass research is being conducted. A similar site exists in Rifle, and Pearson has collaborators at a site in Meeker.
So how do grasses become biofuel?
“There’s lots of ways to get from the plant to some kind of fuel,” Pearson said. “It’s basically breaking down the entire plant, or most of the plant, turning it into simple sugars and fermenting it into second-generation alcohols. Not ethanol, but something like butanol,” Pearson said.
According to Pearson, perennial grasses are a preferred feedstock for second-generation biofuels because they have a neutral carbon budget, require few agronomic inputs, can be readily managed to be environmentally friendly, and can be grown on marginal, underutilized land.
This type of research takes years to find and verify results. But there is no doubt in Pearson’s mind that these perennial grasses are a potential fuel option.
The downside to using grasses as a biofuel option is that they are not very dense — lots of volume with not much weight, which could mean expensive transportation costs to get the biomass from the farm to the processing plant. But Pearson predicts that there will be a bigger problem than transportation.
“The problem is going to boil to down to, what’s going to be the incentive for farmers to grow grasses for biofuel versus growing them for feed for livestock? I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t know that anyone does. But there’s got to be some incentive,” Pearson said.
The staff at the Fruita Agricultural Experiment Station cut and baled the first round of grasses for the summer the last couple days in May. Those cuttings will be sent to Rifle for processing.
Pearson planned to be in Washington, D.C., this week, to join other academics, professionals and researchers on a panel to decide on grant proposals for biomass-to-biofuel research.
He hopes that the research center will secure its own grants so that research can continue through 2016.
“It’s going to be a long process out here compared to various other places around the country where they have a lot of resources,” Pearson said. “We’re trying to make a contribution to this science as best we can.”