Exploring the Future of Fuel and Fertilizer on the Farm

November 8, 2013 06:05 PM
Exploring the Future of Fuel and Fertilizer on the Farm

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."

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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.

"The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future," he says. "Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the U.S. alone."

"It really doesn’t make sense to use nonrenewable natural resources to produce hydrogen," Zhang adds.

Soil microbes are another tiny source with big potential as a manufacturer of fuel and fertilizer. Soil microbes already help one major row crop—soybeans—fix their own nitrogen, says Ann Reid, director of the American Academy of Microbiology.

"Why not figure out a way to encourage these partnerships in crops other than soybeans?" she asks.

Researchers are already hard at work on building new microbe and plant partnerships. One early success story has been the introduction of a fungi into sweet potatoes that helps the plant fix phosphorous. Testing in South America (where soil phosphate is a limiting production problem) has shown reductions in phosphate use by as much as 30%, Reid says.

"I am stunned by how many areas microbiology touches," she says. "It has just exploded in the past 10 years. There are so many opportunities."

Whatever the future brings, know that you probably won’t be using just the same old gas pump in 2025. 

For more stories about interesting ways researchers are trying to tap into new energy sources for the farm, visit www.FarmJournal.com/farm_of_the_future

You can e-mail Ben Potter at bpotter@farmjournal.com.

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