August 4, 2006
By Bobby Horecka
Walk in to most any Texas farm supply store and you'll likely find an entire shelf of products dedicated to the destruction of Chinese tallow trees.
But the day may not be far off when farmers choose to cultivatenot killthis lowly scrub.
Sound unlikely? Not if farmers hope to meet the ever-growing demands of the renewable energy business. In fact, guest speakers said at the recent 59th annual Rice Field Day held in Beaumont, that sort of thinking will be crucial to seeing petroleum alternatives such as ethanol and biodiesel become viable options in the state of Texas.
Switching from traditional crops such as rice and sorghum to crops better suited to fuel production will be key, according to industrial engineer David Schermock with AgriBioFuels, which is targeting a late 2006 opening for its biodiesel plant in Dayton.
For its inception year, Schermock told the group of more than 100 rice growers gathered for the event, his company had chosen to import from the Midwest some $54 million worth of soybean oils to fill its first-year biodiesel order. The ultimate goal, he added, was for local farmersmost within a 15-mile radius of the plantto produce the biomass crops necessary to feed the fuel plant.
And considering a bushel of soybeans can produce just 23 gallons of biodiesel, compared to Chinese tallow's ability to create 500 gallons of fuel for the same amount of product, Schermock said he doubted it would be long before the bemoaned bush found a market in Texas.
"They're already growing it and harvesting the orchards in other parts of the world," Schermock said. "Certainly, Texas farmers can do it better and more efficiently."
Schermock said his investors were contracting now with farmers interested in supplying the crops for subsequent years' oil stock.
Not that massive crop changes will be the absolute for the future of farming, said Ted Wilson, director of the Beaumont Agricultural Experiment Station. Already, researchers are working on making traditional crop production more conducive to biofuel production.
Take rice, for instance. Current varieties grown in Texas were targeted for their grain propensity and food production qualities. But work has already begun to better identify and grow the plants suited for fuel.
Rice kernelsthe parts most cherished by farmers todayare poor producers of biofuels. The stalks and leaves, by contrast, are far more efficient sources for fuel. So why not engineer plants that produce both quality grain and lots more usable silage?
That's what researchers at the Beaumont station are doing, Wilson said, alongside other researchers with other traditional crops at other experiment stations around the country.
Crops aren't the only items apt to change.
"We want to put a jet engine in your pickup," said Mark Holtzapple, professor and researcher with the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Holtzapple is working with a team of engineers to design a better, more efficient automobile engine, using jet engine technologies to accomplish their feat. Current gas and diesel engines, he said, are 15 to 20 percent efficient, with much of the energy lost out the radiator and exhaust.
By contrast, newer engine technologies are capable of 60 percent efficiency ratings, meaning a potential of up 200 miles-per-gallon in the not-to-distant future, Holtzapple said.
"Biofuel production can really give our farmers the boost they need," Wilson said. "All the production knowledge that exists can't help farmers if the economic environment is such that they can't make a living. And in today's competitive world market, we have to really investigate all alternatives if we want to keep our agriculture alive and strong."
More information on the new Dayton biodiesel plant may be found at www.agribiofuels.com. More information on Holtzapple's research can be found at http://engineering.tamu.edu/research/lectures. And for more information on the Beaumont station's rice research trials, visit http://aesrg.tamu.edu.