More Research Needed on Bio-based Fuels

Linda Benedict  |  6/27/2006 7:44:09 PM

Louisiana farmers and foresters could find a silver lining in the cloud of rising fuel prices with the development of new fuels from crops they already grow or could grow.

“The biofuels industry is poised for explosive growth,” Kelsey Short, director of the Agriculture, Forest and Food Technology Division of Louisiana Economic Development, told LSU AgCenter researchers and extension specialists gathered to discuss biofuel possibilities on April 20-21.

“People are looking for ways to improve the value-added components of their farming and forestry operations,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “Interest is growing in alternative fuels and how agriculture can play a role.”

Short pointed to the availability of agricultural production as a leading reason for supporting a biofuels industry in Louisiana. He also cited the state’s proximity to Houston, the fourth largest U.S. market, and the state’s broad-based transportation system, as well as federal economic development incentives through the Gulf Opportunity Zone and tax-exempt bond financing as grounds for pursuing research and development in bio-based fuels.

During the meeting, the researchers and extension specialists reached consensus that ethanol and biodiesel offer the primary opportunities for Louisiana agriculture to take advantage of new energy technologies.

While ethanol generally is made primarily from corn grown in the Midwest, other Louisiana crops – primarily sugarcane and grain sorghum – could provide affordable feedstocks for an ethanol plant. The major component of biodiesel currently is soybean oil, although other oilseeds can provide equally good or better sources for the product.

Corn ethanol requires 26 percent less fossil energy to produce than it contains, while cellulosic ethanol – made from whole sugarcane plants and similar plant materials such as grasses and wood – requires as much as 90 percent less energy to produce. Soy diesel requires 69 percent less energy than it contains. Other oilseeds, such as sunflowers, can produce as much as four times the amount of biodiesel per acre as soybeans.

“The future of ethanol production in Louisiana can be divided into two segments – that which can be produced immediately from molasses, milo or corn and that which requires longer-term development, such as ethanol from cellulose or new energy crops,” said Don Day of the LSU AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute in St. Gabriel. “Biodiesel seems to hold the promise of freeing the Louisiana farmer from the rising fuel cost of producing crops.”

Short said six biofuel projects are in the pipeline in Louisiana – three ethanol plants and three bio-diesel plants.

(This article was published in the spring 2006 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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