Perspectives Online

Energy Fields - First Biofuels Field Day showcases state’s ethanol production potential.

Soybeans and sweet sorghum are among the demonstration crops grown at Williamsdale Farm.
Photo by Dave Caldwell

From farmers to business owners, North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents and research station superintendents, nearly 150 people gathered on Sept. 27 for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ first Biofuels Field Day.

Held at the Williamsdale Farm and Agricultural Extension and Research Facility in Duplin County, the field day showcased seminars led by a number of College faculty on the different types of biomass being grown on the farm.

Craig Yencho (left) and Ken Pecota describe their work with industrial sweet potatoes.
Photo Dave Caldwell
North Carolina Sen. Charlie Albertson, one of the state’s biggest proponents of biofuel production, kicked off the field day with remarks about North Carolina’s potential to become a major player.

“I’m very excited about Williamsdale Farm and all of the possibilities and opportunities it offers,” he said. “I believe we can produce some energy in this state to make us less reliant on outside sources of energy. If we can do that, we’ll all be great winners.”

College Dean Johnny Wynne took the podium next to give background on Williamsdale Farm and its role in a major statewide biofuels initiative. The 611-acre farm was donated to the College by sisters Frances Carr Parker of Kinston and Eleanor Carr Boyd of Charlotte. The land had been in their family for 258 years and was originally granted by King George I.

(From top) Ron Heiniger presents switchgrass as a source of cellulosic ethanol production. Field day stations surround the historic Williamsdale house, center of the 611-acre farm. At a mobile lab, Larry Stikeleather delineates the conversion of sweet sorghum to ethanol. Industry reps from BioDiesel join CALS researchers in biofuels-production demonstrations.
Top photo by Dave Caldwell
Bottom photos by Daniel Kim
“We plan to use this farm to do research to identify and develop feedstocks that can be grown, harvested, stored and processed here in North Carolina,” Wynne said. “This farm is also part of North Carolina’s strategic plan for biofuels leadership.”

A major goal of the strategic plan, Wynne said, is that by 2017, 10 percent of liquid fuels sold in North Carolina will be grown and processed within the state. The state Legislature allocated $1.5 million to begin to develop the necessary infrastructure on Williamsdale Farm. Work on the farm will complement a biofuels center in Oxford, as well as a pilot facility in development at the university’s Lake Wheeler Road complex, Wynne said.

“We hope to use this farm as a demonstration of what a farm would do to grow an energy crop, then take that material to our pilot facility and determine how efficient that process would be,” he said.

Dr. Matthew Veal, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, next delivered an eye-opening presentation on why biofuels are an important issue for North Carolina and the nation.

“One of the driving factors of biofuels is national security,” he said. Petroleum resources in the Middle East, Africa and Central America make up the bulk of the oil-holding capacity of the world. “The problem with this is a lot of these regions really aren’t friendly to the United States, so we want to be able to have access to energy that we can count on,” Veal said.

North America produces only 9 percent of the world’s oil reserve, but is one of the world’s top consumers of oil, he said. The U.S. Geological Survey projects that the world’s oil production capacity will peak by 2037, and others believe that this already has occurred. Veal described the situation as a “pending crisis,” but was quick to point out the opportunity that lies within.

“We have an opportunity to use this crisis to develop new markets and new economies, especially in rural communities,” he said.

Pecota takes visitors through the steps of harvesting, separating and storing sweet potatoes.
Photo by Dave Caldwell
Domestic ethanol production, Veal said, will be successful as feedstocks other than corn are utilized.

“If we took the entire 2006 corn crop and converted it to ethanol, that would displace only about 13 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption,” he said. “So it’s important if we’re really going to make an impact on gas markets that we identify other feedstocks that we can put into ethanol production besides corn.”

The four feedstocks grown for demonstration on Williamsdale Farm this year were switchgrass, soybeans, sweet sorghum and industrial sweet potatoes.

In one of the field day’s workshops, Dr. Ron Heiniger, Extension crop science specialist, and Dr. Ratna Sharma, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, discussed the benefits and challenges of cellulosic ethanol production from switchgrass.

“We’re not starting from scratch when we talk about developing switchgrass for use in biofuels,” Heiniger said. The crop is native to North Carolina, resistant to most disease and pests in the state, has low-impact requirements (which means it takes very little nitrogen to fertilize switchgrass) and typically produces very high yields, he said.

However, seed dormancy and a complicated process for conversion of switchgrass to ethanol present challenges.

“We are still on a scale where conversion is possible in the lab, but scaling it up to commercial level is not economical,” Sharma said, describing cellulosic ethanol as “fuel for the future.”

Another station, led by Dr. Nicholas George and Kimberly Tungate of the North Carolina Solar Center, explored biodiesel production from soybeans and canola. N.C. Biofuels LLC demonstrated small-scale crushing and oil recovery, which allowed field day participants to see first-hand the process involved in extracting “usable” oil from seed.

Dr. Mari Chinn, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering; Dr. Larry Stikeleather, professor of biological and agricultural engineering; and Veal teamed up to lead a talk on sugar biomass as a potential ethanol source. They set up a small-scale crusher and mobile lab to demonstrate how to harvest, press, ferment and distill sweet sorghum into bioethanol.

At the fourth field tour stop, Dr. Craig Yencho, associate professor of horticultural science; Ken Pecota, researcher in the Department of Horticultural Science; Dr. Bryon Sosinski, associate professor of horticultural science; and Ph.D. student Monica Santa Maria, described their work with industrial sweet potatoes, including seed stock, mechanical harvesting and separation and storage.

“North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the U.S., providing about 40 percent of the nation’s supply,” Yencho said. “But sweet potatoes are extremely expensive to produce, about eight times the cost per acre of producing corn.”

Yencho and his colleagues are working to develop a number of different solutions to bring costs down and make sweet potatoes a viable alternative to corn in large-scale ethanol production.

Dean Wynne’s remarks best captured the overall theme for the day: The time has come for biofuels.

“Biofuels are good for the economy, they’re good for the environment and they’re good for national security,” he said. “We’re going to do all we can in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, working with many partners, to make sure that we’re players as we move into a new economy where energy comes from bio-based products, rather than petroleum-based products.

Learn more about the College's efforts related to biofuels in the new Making a Difference Web site.

Biofuels processor featured at CEFS ‘Fueling the Farm’ workshop

Coping with the high costs of energy is a common concern among North Carolina farmers. With oil prices near all-time highs, farmers are experiencing price increases for shipping, storage and processing, along with higher costs for nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas and propane.

As farmers seek innovative ways to deal with high and fluctuating energy costs and reduce their fuel, fertilizer and electric bills, they are also considering the possibility of generating some of their own power using wind turbines, solar panels, anaerobic digesters or biodiesel fuel.

An innovative workshop held in July at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Goldsboro addressed all of these issues and even gave participants an opportunity to design and build a biofuel processor.

The event, “Fueling the Farm: Managing Energy Risks and Reducing Energy Costs and Exploring Alternative Energy Sources,” was put on by CEFS and the National Center for Appropriate Technology, with funding and cooperation from the USDA Risk Management Agency.

In addition to offering an overview of current and future energy use in agriculture, the workshop showed producers how to evaluate their energy saving options and how to finance and build renewable energy projects. Nearly 100 participants toured energy saving projects at Cherry Farm in Goldsboro and engaged in breakout sessions on renewable energy as well as state and federal grant and loan opportunities.

Creating a biofuel processor was the highlight of the workshop. Using components that cost about $300, workshop participants helped build a small-scale biodiesel processor that converts vegetable oil into biofuel, serving as a replacement for or supplement to diesel fuel. A live demonstration of the processor revealed the success of the participants’ handiwork.

— Steve Moore, CEFS