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Extension > Source - Fall/Winter 2009 > Forging into the future

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Forging into the future

Helping guide the next steps of homegrown energy

Doug Tiffany

Doug Tiffany, Extension energy economist, is working to improve the efficiency of corn-ethanol plants and preparing the infrastructure for the next generation of ethanol.

In the quest to secure Minnesota's renewable energy future, there's no magic bullet against market forces. Although corn ethanol contributes billions annually to the state's economy, ethanol plants also have been touched by economic troubles in the past year. As more media attention gravitates toward alternatives such as cellulosic ethanol, wind, biomass and hydrogen, the question throughout the countryside is: What are the next steps for Minnesota? Extension's role is to test ideas and provide the research-based information needed to create the renewable energy economy.

Grains

Dry grains of Minnesota corn destined for the energy industry are delivered to a grain elevator.

Minnesota's renewable energy future is linked to the immediate task of making corn-ethanol production greener and more profitable. A second task is preparing the infrastructure for the next generation of ethanol, made from sources like agricultural waste, grasses and wood. Doug Tiffany is at the forefront of both efforts. The Extension energy economist spent the last nine years helping Minnesotans determine the dollars and cents of producing homegrown energy. Today, he is helping improve the economic and environmental efficiency of corn-ethanol plants—advancements that could also benefit cellulosic-ethanol plants.

Tiffany and other University of Minnesota faculty work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to study the impact of substituting locally grown cornstalks, corncobs, grasses and wood waste for the natural gas most ethanol plants use to change corn into fuel. Burning the fossil fuel natural gas releases much more carbon dioxide, which adds to ethanol's carbon footprint, and the price fluctuation of natural gas wreaks havoc with the profitability of ethanol plants. The price of waste and plant materials purchased from area farmers is more predictable, and ethanol plants running on biomass produce corn ethanol with a greenhouse gas-emissions rating substantially lower than gasoline.

But the greener, locally-grown substitute doesn't arrive conveniently from an existing pipeline like natural gas. Creating a supply chain to deliver cornstalks, corncobs, grasses and wood waste is key. Tiffany and other University of Minnesota scientists are discovering how to condense bulky biomass into tighter bundles that are cheaper and easier to use and transport.

"Farmers know how to collect cornstalks and other material to sell to neighboring farmers, but large-scale harvesting and transportation represent new challenges," Tiffany says. "Selling biomass has to be profitable for farmers and financially rewarding for the ethanol plants or nobody will do it."

Tiffany's work builds upon a history of University research on growing fuel from Minnesota fields. Another example is research by Extension swine professor Jerry Shurson that has shown added value and revenue for ethanol-production leftovers. When Shurson and his team began their research 10 years ago, only 4 percent of corn coproducts from Minnesota ethanol plants were fed to pigs and poultry. Today, that figure has climbed to 25 percent as the group's research has helped farmers and nutritionists understand and use co-products in cost-effective rations.

"Extension researchers are looking at all aspects of renewable energy, from growing potential fuel crops, to the economics of energy systems to feeding co-products," says Tiffany. "Our goal is to provide the research-based information that puts Minnesota in the driver's seat of the renewable energy revolution."

For more information on Extension's work in renewable energy, visit www.extension.umn.edu/go/1013

For research and feeding recommendations related to using the primary ethanol co-product (dried distillers grains with soluble) in livestock and poultry feeds, visit www.ddgs.umn.edu

Sun harvest

Gerald Tumbleson

Gerald Tumbleson, producer

Gerald Tumbleson will tell you the basics haven't changed during his farming career. "I farm the sun," he says. "Everything begins when sunlight hits a green leaf and the plant converts that sunlight into energy, starch, oil, protein and cellulose."

Today the Martin County farmer sells that sun energy as soybeans, corn-fed pork and corn ethanol from a local plant. But the impact goes beyond simple plant biology, says Tumbleson, former president of the National Corn Growers Association: "Agriculture's ability to capture the sun and change it into something I can sell creates new money that helps drive the economy."

Minnesota's corn and ethanol industries create more than 70,000 jobs and contribute $12 billion to the state's economy, according to a 2009 report from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Miles per tree

Diomy Zamora

Diomy Zamora, Extension agroforestry educator

When Diomy Zamora looks at a tree, he sees more than branches, leaves or a sturdy trunk. The Extension agroforestry educator sees the potential to produce cellulosic ethanol and other forms of energy from trees.

"Similar kinds of raw materials that make corn-ethanol plants more efficient today will be used to make cellulosic ethanol from trees tomorrow," he says.

A newly planted hybrid poplar would yield about 3,600 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per acre eight to 10 years from now, according to Zamora. His test plots evaluate tree species and management practices that will boost those numbers.

Trees are one of the plant materials called biomass that could drive the future of Minnesota-produced renewable energy. Teaching landowners how to raise trees for the emerging biomass market is one step in creating a pipeline to supply a plant-based alternative to petroleum products. Another important step will be conducting research on the fuel potential and performance in commercial settings, Zamora says.

The University of Minnesota Morris has installed a biomass gasifier that converts biomass from corn and grasses, including biomass from woods, into a biogas as a natural-gas substitute. Zamora plans to use the knowledge learned in Morris on the type of appropriate feedstock to help landowners raise the trees that will someday power Minnesota's energy needs.

For more information on Extension agroforestry programs, visit www.extension.umn.edu/Agroforestry

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