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Researchers show potential of farm waste as fuel

People have used biomass energy or bioenergy — the energy from organic matter — since the first use of fire for heat. Today, wood is still our largest biomass source.

But other sources are becoming increasingly useful and — with the help of researchers like Shulin Chen, a Washington State University professor and associate director of the Northwest Bioproduct Research Institute — dreams of turning undervalued biowaste into valuable products like fuel are becoming reality.

“We are doing research to obtain valued commodities from agricultural products and/or waste,” said Craig Frear, a research associate for the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “Our biomass inventory project is a wonderful project to help show the potential of biomass use, so we can get better government, industry and community support and funding for our and others’ research innovations.”

Some of that support already is evident. Last fall, the WSU Department of Ecology completed the first in the three-phase inventory project aimed at assessing Eastern Washington’s 20 counties for available biomass and calculating its potential energy production via anaerobic digestion. Partnering with WSU in the project are INTEC (a Spokane-based nonprofit economic-development liaison between education, government and business) and Quincy Farm Chemicals (a central Washington fertilizer company).

Powering 40% of homes

Results show an annual production of 4.3 million tons of underutilized dry biomass. Via anaerobic digestion and electrical generation of the collected biogas, that material has the potential for producing 3.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity — roughly enough power to meet 40 percent of eastern Washington’s annual residential electrical consumption. In other words, wheat straw, manure and other wastes could power four out of 10 homes in Eastern Washington.

Phase two, which will extend the study to the entire state, is under way. It will calculate the energy potential of biomass using other processing systems beyond anaerobic digestion. It also will analyze the economic potential of the possible systems and various scenarios of waste collection and transportation.

Phase two will help determine the viability of developing a bioenergy system and demonstration sites in the state. Phase three will include the promotion of biomass as energy to local industries. Hopes are that industry will realize that money can be made from biomass and will make bioenergy a feasible and marketable product in Washington state.

“Given the fact that we will have an increasing population and an inability to rely on foreign oil, we must come up with alternative energy sources,” said Frear. He also cited environmental concerns connected to the use of fossil fuels and the buildup of waste as reasons to pursue alternative energy sources like biomass.

“This is especially important to the United States and the state of Washington, as we are the eighth largest agricultural state in the union,” he said. “We could sell this energy to less agricultural states — like we do with hydro-electric power.

“We are trying to put together agricultural and environmental interests to either make fuels, energy or valued chemicals with biomass, using undervalued waste materials,” he said.

Secondary crop and income

Using biomass as energy could offer financial relief and additional income to farmers. For example, farmers could harvest and sell their wheat, then sell the leftover straw as an energy producing byproduct.

In addition to industry, environmentalists and farmers, American Indian tribes are interested in the budding bioenergy business. The Spokane tribes, for example, are talking with WSU about a potential as-yet-undefined collaboration that could bring them job opportunities.

President George W. Bush recognized concerns about energy supplies and in 2001 steered the nation towards a national energy policy focused on “promoting innovation and technology” specifically geared towards “diversifying America’s supply of all sources of energy.”

Washington Gov. Gary Locke agreed. He pushed for legislation that would force electricity companies to put out approximately 10 percent of their energy from biomass and said, “We must find new, innovative ways to protect and improve our precious natural resources by finding ways to use the wealth of our natural forests, farmlands and waters and still protect them for generations to come.”

Chen noted, “We are getting positive feedback from WSU and the U.S. Department of Energy concerning this project.”

But it is no small undertaking; even if half the potential were ever realized, many challenges face the developing bioenergy industry. Frear is the first to admit that biomass will not solve the energy problem. But it will take a bit of the load off fossil fuels, he said.

Whitman County biomass

WSU biomass researchers inventoried wastes from food packers, field and food processors and various municipal wastes, including yard waste and sewage. During the phase one assessment, Whitman County was found to be one of the top five counties in terms of total biomass. The combined biomass from these five counties represented more than 50 percent of Eastern Washington’s total biomass.

In Whitman County, 78 percent of the bioenergy potential comes from field residues such as wheat straw. The county was found to generate 655,000 dry tons of underutilized biomass annually, with a potential for 471 million kilowatt hours of electrical energy.

As the WSU project continues its assessment of biomass potential in Washington, research is ongoing into ways the waste might be used. Examples include turning potato waste into a plastic polymer for clothing and packaging that is biodegradable, and trapping methane gas from manure and running it through an anaerobic digester to make usable fuels.

“The university recognizes the importance of this unusual research and is willing to support it in any way they can,” said Chen. “We couldn’t do this without WSU’s support; it allows us to feel confident that we will have success.

“Tapping into the potential of underutilized biomass in an environmentally conscientious manner will be part of the future for energy production and consumption,” he said. “It is just a matter of how long it will take.”

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