Grant to help farmers harness biomass and manure to fuel farms

Since 2012, Roeslein has been working with Smithfield Foods to adjust practices on their hog farms that have resulted in greater efficiencies.


Source: Iowa State University

via National Hog Farmer - Jul 29, 2020


A new federal grant will allow a research team led by Iowa State University, Penn State University and Roeslein Alternative Energy to develop new methods of turning biomass and manure into fuel.


The five-year, $10 million grant from the USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture will power the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural reGenerative Enterprise as it works to create new value chains on U.S. farms, with emphasis on the generation of renewable natural gas, improved rural economic outcomes and protection of the environment.


The project director on the transdisciplinary and multi-institutional grant is Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management and associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State. Schulte Moore said the consortium will innovate methods for farmers to make more efficient use of resources while maintaining current value chains, resulting in an agricultural economy that's both more profitable and environmentally sound.


"We recognize the benefits of current production systems but also that there's a lot of inefficiency in how we use land, sunlight, nutrients and water," Schulte Moore says. "We also realize that farmers and rural communities are struggling. We know we can address inefficiencies by adding perennials and recoupling crop, livestock and energy systems. Research is needed to ensure these combinations are also profitable."


C-CHANGE researchers are developing new ways for farmers to produce renewable natural gas that could be used as an energy source both on and off farms. The project centers on anaerobic digestion, or the process by which microorganisms break down biomatter and produce biogas, which is mostly methane, the main component of natural gas. With new separation technologies, biogas can be upgraded to renewable natural gas and distributed through the gas pipeline network, much like renewable electricity is distributed through the electrical grid. The researchers are experimenting with how to optimize the digesters, or the containers where the biomatter is broken down into methane. Researchers will test variables such as feedstock mixture, pretreatment, digester temperature and water content to make the process as practical as possible.


"For more than 50 years, anaerobic digestion has been promoted as a way to both improve environmental management of livestock manures and to produce renewable energy," says Tom Richard, director of Penn State's Institutes of Energy and the Environment. "But adoption of anaerobic digestion has been limited by high capital costs and management complexity, which has slowed the advance of this industry and the underlying technology. We will be working with farmers and other industrial partners to update anaerobic digestion for the 21st century, applying the principles of process intensification, automation and economies of scale to reduce costs, simplify operations and expand digester feedstocks beyond manure to incorporate perennial grasses and winter crops into their operations as a source of biomass for the digesters."


Schulte Moore said some areas of farm fields particularly uneven terrain that is especially susceptible to erosion, frequently inundated areas or turnrows can yield poor or negative profits for corn and soybean producers. Switching those acres out of corn and soybeans to perennial grasses could save farmers money and protect the environment, she says...