Exploring the future of fuel and fertilizer on the farm
It takes energy to run a farm. More specifically, it takes diesel, gasoline, propane and electricity. All of that energy costs money—typically around 15% of a farming operation’s budget. So it should come as little surprise that a big chunk of today’s agricultural research is devoted to not only making traditional types of energy more efficient, but also tapping into renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and more.
Many of these technologies are available today, but their use is the exception, not the rule. As the next decade unfolds, which among these newer energy sources will become scalable and viable, and which ones will become historical footnotes?
Start with the sun. Solar power is a primary example of an alternative energy source that hasn’t enjoyed widespread success on the farm because of its relative cost and difficulty to implement. But that might soon change, says ag futurist Bob Treadway.
"Solar is the renewable with the greatest upside," he says. "Science and engineering will up efficiencies substantially over the next five to 10 years."
Michigan-based Harvest Energy Solutions is one of several companies making significant investments in solar energy production. Mark Olinyk, CEO of Harvest, explains that although the company primarily served the small wind marketplace when it began in 2006, priorities have shifted dramatically to solar projects since then. That’s because the price of solar panels have become more cost effective, he says.
"The solar industry is becoming a shining example of how an important new industry is brought along to the point where it can soon compete on its own," he says.
The moment of "grid parity"—when solar costs are equal to the cost of fossil fuel—is fast-approaching, Olinyk adds. He and other solar energy proponents say the future looks bright.
True on-farm energy. Farmers are no strangers to ethanol or biodiesel. In fact, many of them produce these biofuels today. But envision a future where the fuel or fertilizer you produce stays right on your farm. The secret lies in scalability—can today’s brightest minds shrink down current technologies so farmers could make small batches of biofuel themselves?
"Ethanol can scale down," Treadway says. "So can biodiesel. The most interesting work I’ve seen comes from Oregon State University. Several years ago, they had a prototype of a non-chemical, no-catalyst process that could produce 300 gal. of biodiesel a month. It could fit easily in a garage."
Imagine that you harvest the first 100 acres of your crop and feed it into a small bioreactor that converts it into all of the fuel you would need for the following year. That technology would be a game changer.
That’s not the only energy "Holy Grail" in the works, either. A team of scientists at Virginia Tech University say they have made the next big breakthrough in alternative energy production. They have created an effective way to extract an alternative energy source that’s been around for 13 billion years and is literally a part of the air we breathe—the hydrogen atom.
"Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future," says Y-H Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech.
Zhang and his colleagues used plant xylose (a naturally occurring simple sugar) to produce large quantities of hydrogen. The scientists were able to "liberate" the gas by adding a specific cocktail of enzymes and heating the biomass to 122°F. This causes the energy stored in xylose to split water molecules into individual oxygen and hydrogen molecules. The process is environmentally friendly, releases almost no greenhouse gasses and does not require use of costly heavy metals.
Zhang hopes the process is commercially reproducible in a matter of years, at which point he says the impact could be tremendous.
- Mid-November 2013