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ARS Center Searches for "Opportunity Fuels"

By Don Comis
March 30, 2007

The Henry A. Wallace Beltsville (Md.) Agricultural Research Center (BARC) is doing a feasibility study on construction of a 1- to 2-megawatt research and development gasification facility to generate electricity and steam for BARC labs, offices and farm buildings.

The unit would use a variety of feedstocks, and the technology could be transferable to rural communities and farm cooperatives. BARC is operated by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief in-house scientific research agency. The study is being done under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Gasification is a process of burning biomass—whether animal wastes or other materials—to turn it into a fuel gas that can be used directly for heat or electricity or further converted into a variety of liquid fuels. The study should be ready sometime in mid- to late April.

Matt Smith, research leader of the ARS Environmental Management and Byproduct Utilization Laboratory at Beltsville, and colleagues are growing poplar trees and switchgrass to study the plants' ability to use excess nutrients from animal manures, add carbon to the soil, and provide feedstocks for bioenergy. If successful, such plants could help protect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and help provide energy for farms and rural communities. At other ARS locations, switchgrass is being studied for cellulosic ethanol production.

The idea is for the 6,500-acre BARC to demonstrate the use of wastes as "opportunity fuels," using whatever farm products are in excess or available at the time fuel is needed. For example, BARC composts 11,850 cubic yards of manure each year. This comes from the farm's livestock—cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys and chickens—about 5,000 to 6,000 animals.

Smith also studies biogas (methane) production from the wastes from the BARC dairy. Biogas can be used to produce heat and electricity for use on the farm.

BARC has been running all of its diesel vehicles and equipment and backup generators on B20 biodiesel fuel since 1999.