Farmer Iron

Biomass is Challenge and Opportunity

Companies are planning ahead for a cellulose-based biofuel future.

It's curious how you look at a new potential market. Take biofuels for example. Farmers and industry have worked long and hard on the ethanol business to create a profit engine (they hope) that will drive innovation and creativity. And it's time to start looking at the next step for biofuels.

With all the talk about how biomass-based fuels offer a better carbon footprint or enhanced profitability, you keep running into the same roadblocks - infrastructure. We already know how to move corn and soybeans from place to place. We have the trucks we have the elevators and conveyors. But biomass? Geez, just what are we asking?

That's what the biofuels industry is working to ask and at least one farm equipment maker is pushing too. Agco is hard at work on the logistical problems surrounding biomass-based fuels.

This tag-along baler that Agco is using provides a clean way to collect and package cellulose for next-generation biofuels.

Recently, news came out that Agco wants to work with the a U.S. Department of Energy grant for up to $5 million on a project focused on the efficiently collection and transport of biomass for biofuel production. The effort aims to explore how a harvest and transport infrastructure could be built - the rest of the industry could work on a price-sales matrix to get value out of the product.

It's a great idea. We need to tackle this if we're going to start using corn stover and switchgrass to create biofuel.

Then comes word last week that Agco is going to show off a prototype of a new biomass harvester during a POET event in Emmetsburg, Iowa on November 3 during the company's Liberty Field Day. Project Liberty is going to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year from corn cobs.

Agco is working on a one-pass system that mates a combine to a Hesston large square baler to collect clean corn stover, corn cobs and leaves in a 3-foot by 4-foot package. The company also claims the system doesn't pick up much dirt in the process, compared to other approaches.

The company also says the process could be adapted to other biomass sources, including switchgrass too. The bale size is now a standard for transport - since a lot of forages move across country in the large square format. It's one approach to help solve that infrasctructure issue.

Pick up those cobs

Vermeer is taking a little different approach, but working its way into the biomass business as well. The company has launched a corncob harvester that would pick up this valuable product for use by renewable energy plants. And it's already being put to work on a project in Minnesota. The Gopher State farmers are taking advantage of the Biomass Crop Assistant Program and collecting cobs to be used by the Chippewa Valley Electrical Cooperative.

Picking up cobs behind the combine is a lot easier with this new Vermeer machine, which is now being deployed in biomass programs around the country.

Participants in the program get a little help from the U.S. Department of Energy with matching funds for biomass produced. Corn cobs in this process are being followed and the concept is being analyzed. There won't be much information until next spring, but it offers the potential for turning more field residue (trash) into treasure for your operation.

In this case, the cobs are going to be mixed with coal for electricity in a test of the idea for using residues as a renewable fuel. This bypasses all that worry about cellulosic technology for ethanol and offers a more direct route to the energy market. It should provide some interesting results.

Basically, the biomass-based biofuels market is getting traction in a variety of ways and farm equipment makers are on board in a big way. It's a business opportunity worth watching.

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