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Farmers Look To 
Dent Oil Dependency

Farm Waste Products 
Touted as Alternative Fuel
by Alvin Benn

Poultry waste propulsion? Why not?

As strange as it may seem, agricultural efforts are well under way across the country to use what we’ve got on the surface, not below it, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.   

American agricultural experts are taking a close look at farm and forest assets including cotton stalks, corn, grass, trees and who knows what else might be available.

Auburn University professor David Bransby, right, chats with Tuscaloosa County farmer Clyde Leavelle during a break at the Alabama Agriculture Energy Conference in November.

With a billion chickens being raised and processed each year in Alabama, it would seem only natural to convert what now is considered waste into one of several potential alternate fuel sources.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, left, chats with Bill Clark, who works for the city of Eufaula that utilizes an alternate fuel source in some of its municipal vehicles. The two met at an energy conference at Auburn University in November.

It’s akin to yard sales where sellers try to get rid of their trash to people looking for treasures. What American farmers have to sell appears unlimited and that applies to far more than traditional animal and crop production.

In addition to Alabama, other states also are using natural assets to their own advantage as the worldwide energy crisis broadens and, in some cases, worsens. It might be turkey litter in Minnesota, hog waste in Iowa or even elephant dung at the zoo in Syracuse, N.Y.

Alabama Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks believes in reducing wasteful practices — except in farming operations where future fuel sources might just be lying around on the ground from Huntsville to Mobile.

"We raise over a billion chickens a year in Alabama so we ought to be using that byproduct to create fuel," Sparks told a large gathering of farmers several weeks ago at Auburn University (AU). The farmers who attended the second annual Alabama Agriculture Energy Conference at Auburn took note of Sparks’ comments and it was apparent they liked what he had to say.

Auburn University professor Oladiran Fasina holds chicken waste pellets in his hands at an AU furnace that was used to heat a greenhouse on campus.

Regardless of agricultural specialties, farmers now realize they might be able to put a dent in America’s foreign oil dependency just by using what they now are throwing away.

David Bransby, professor of energy crops at Auburn University, said new federal studies have shown there is a potential for producing a billion tons of bio-energy from the country’s farming communities. (See Bransby’s article on next page.) In addition to chicken litter, Bransby also cited a variety of other potential energy sources — including soybeans for bio-diesel fuel, corn for ethanol and wood for other needs.

It’s anything but farfetched. Midwestern farmers have been using their vast corn crop for 

ethanol for several years.  Sparks mentioned a North Alabama farmer who has retrofitted his pickup truck to run on wood.  Sparks said one cord of wood is able to transport the farmer more than 5,000 miles. He said the truck may not look like much, but it gets the farmer where he wants to go. And, he doesn’t have to shell out $3 for a gallon of gas either, as was the case late last year.

"It’s absolutely ridiculous that we are having to pay the type of prices we’re paying now for fuel in this country," Sparks said, shortly after being introduced at the conference. "It’s government’s responsibility to look at alternative fuels and agriculture is where we ought to be looking." Sparks said he is a "firm believer that every gallon of oil we can produce in Alabama is one less gallon we have to bring out of the desert." If America does not do something about its foreign oil dependence, he said, "We’re going to be in the same situation we’re in today and that is being held hostage to OPEC nations for our fuel."

When Bransby said the U.S. could replace 30 percent of its oil imports simply by using agricultural byproducts to produce alternative fuel, Clyde Leavelle of Tuscaloosa County took notice.

"Saving 30 percent of our energy needs by using agricultural products would be significant, in my opinion," said Leavelle. "I think we’d be foolish not to use our natural resources for this important issue in our country."

An Auburn University professor has been working hard to find a way to transform barnyard residue and other agricultural byproducts into useful fuel sources. Dr. Oladiran Fasina, an assistant professor in AU’s Bio-systems Engineering department, has transformed projections and predictions into reality with his work on use of pelleted poultry litter as an alternate fuel source. Working with Bransby and two other AU professors — Charles Gilliam and Jeff Sibley — Fasina has been able to prove that poultry waste is a definite option to OPEC’s roller coaster oil policies.

Unlike fossil fuels that aren’t renewable, bio-energy has an unlimited future, according to Fasina and his AU colleagues. In other words, chickens don’t run out of "wasteful" discharges and it can be turned into an American asset.

More than chickens are involved in studies about alternate fuel sources and Fasina’s group released results of a study that detailed just what’s out there.

Alabama has 22 million acres of forestland and 6 million acres of grassland and cropland, according to state forestry experts. Add those assets to other agricultural resources and it adds up to substantial fuel sources.

"Based strictly on the agricultural and forestry sectors, Alabama has enough raw biofuel to provide electricity for all the residents of the state," said Fasina’s group, in its position paper. "Additionally, municipal landfills daily receive millions of tons of wastes with fuel value."

Members of the Auburn group knew it would take a demonstration to prove their point. That’s why they undertook an experiment to show the value of farm and forest energy sources. In early 2005, Fasina began using pellets from chickens and other sources to heat a greenhouse on campus. The goal was to evaluate the fuel potential for pellets from various raw materials on an energy efficiency basis.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs  (ADECA), the AU experiment was conducted at the Paterson Horticulture Complex in a Quonset greenhouse equipped with a natural gas furnace.

Pellet samples were manufactured at Auburn in the Corley Bio-systems Engineering Building. Switchgrass and poultry litter became fuel, along with pelleted peanut hulls and composted household garbage — the latter obtained from AgFiber Inc. in Dothan and another company in Tennessee.

Fasina’s AU group said results from the experiment indicated a savings of between $5 and $8 a day in energy and heating cost for the greenhouse. That might not seem like much, but multiply it many times over and it’s easy to see how valuable it could become in time.

ADECA spokeswoman Kathy Hornsby, who has helped the AU group, says the pelleting process has "a lot of potential," but also has some drawbacks, which isn’t unusual for anything with a new wrinkle.

"Pelleting can be a cumbersome process," she said. "However, if we can find a way to overcome some of the problems, it would appear pelleting has applications in several areas."

The Auburn conference, which was sponsored by ADECA, focused on the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and a variety of issues related to alternate fuel sources. Four "policy drivers" toward that goal were national security, air quality, public health and economics.

One aspect of the federal act involves something called the "Joint Flexible Fuel/Hybrid Vehicle Commercialization Initiative." It established a research and grant program to advance the commercialization of hybrid vehicles, especially those that can achieve "not less than 250 miles per gallon of gasoline."

If that should ever happen, Americans, one day, could be able to travel coast to coast on a fill-up or two. That might upset the oil companies, but the American consumer would be smiling every mile, every day as they mentally count up their savings.

Achieving 250 miles on a single gallon of gas may sound a bit science fictional, but those in the know cite as examples the huge increase in the use of ethanol during the past quarter century in America. In 1980, vehicles in the U.S. used 200 million gallons of ethanol a year as a power source. Today, it’s closer to two billion gallons a year.

Ethanol is made by converting the carbohydrate portion of biomass into sugar that then is converted into ethanol through a fermentation process. Corn is a good crop for ethanol and that’s why Midwest farmers are taking a close look at that possible moneymaking idea.

Unlike moonshiners who’d get into trouble with the law at times because of their own unique "fermentation process," those who can find a way to speed up ethanol conversions might wind up making a lot of "hay" off of their farm commodities and waste. 

Only time will tell, but positive results from experiments conducted by Fasina and others indicate that America’s bio-energy future looks much brighter than the past.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.

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Date Last Updated January, 2006