The New Century Farm

December 12, 2008 06:00 PM
Rising up from the soil west of Ames, Iowa, are corn and soybean plants, switchgrass, miscanthus—and walls of concrete. A new "living laboratory” is under construction at Iowa State University (ISU) to help researchers learn how to grow, harvest, store, transport, handle and process biomass for energy.

Called the New Century Farm, this first-of-its-kind facility will enable public and private sector scientists to study bioenergy from field to fuel tank. On the research site, alternative crops will be grown for biofuel, combines will be engineered to harvest biomass and processing methods will turn cellulosic material into energy.

"This farm represents a new paradigm in agricultural research and development,” says Joe Colletti, senior associate dean in the ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "It allows us to go from basic discovery to assisting the industry in delivering the energy product we all need. "

It is widely recognized today that corn grain alone won't support the renewable fuels economy. "The need for renewable sources of energy requires a dynamic new way of thinking,” says Dean Oestreich, DuPont vice president and chairman of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a DuPont business. DuPont pledged $1 million to the New Century Farm.
"The New Century Farm will research the practical things farmers can do to grow, harvest and store biomass in a sustainable manner,” Oestreich says. Research will include:

 how to produce biomass crops in an efficient manner;
 optimal harvest, transportation and storage procedures for biomass;
 ecosystem impacts;
 which processing method works best—biochemical, bioprocessing or thermochemical;
 how to use and add value to bio-mvass byproducts.

The on-site processing facility will be capable of processing 5 tons of biomass per day into bio-oil or synthetic gas. In addition, the facility will process 500 lb. of grain or biomass into ethanol and industrial chemicals, says Larry Johnson, director of the Center for Crops Utilization Research, which will be conducting research on the farm. Many operations in the test facility will be about 1⁄1,000 of a commercial scale.

The New Century Farm is being built during a time when fundamental questions about food, feed and fuel need critical answers, ISU's Colletti says.
"Between now and 20 years, population analysts think there will be a 50% increase in the world's population,” he says. "Where do we find the land to produce food; what kind of protein, carbohydrate and fat do we need; and what kind of renewable energy can we provide? These are tremendous issues that beg for substantial increases in scientific research.”

You can e-mail Jeanne Bernick at

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