‘Grassoline’ on the way: Switchgrass-to-ethanol refining to begin this year in Vonore
By Iva Butler | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
VONORE — About 75 people, including Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, took a tour in Vonore Tuesday to look at the progress in developing a cost-effective way to turn switchgrass into ethanol to fuel vehicles.
The two Republicans visited a farm growing several types of switchgrass, followed by tours of the processing plant and biorefinery that are expected to begin making fuel from switchgrass next year. It currently makes ethanol from a variety of cellulosic materials like corn cobs.
Alexander said making ethanol out of switchgrass is preferable to corn because it doesn’t drive up the price of an edible crop.
“This is fuel from crops that we don’t eat,” he said. “So if it works — which we hope it does — it will be very important for our country’s future.”
Haslam said after the tour that if Tennessee can make a fuel that isn’t subject to the whims of the international oil market, that is clean and domestically available, “that’s a huge win for us.”
“We’re here today to help understand the economics of what stands between us and finally accomplishing that,” he said.
In 2007, the state committed $70.5 million to the UT Biofuels Initiative. a five-year program to determine the cost-effectiveness of converting switchgrass to ethanol. Other partners are Genra Energy and Dupont.
Switchgrass is a hardy, deep-rooted perennial that begins growth in spring and is harvested beginning in November.
The Biofuels Initiative has involved recruiting farmers to take part in the demonstration.
61 farms involved
Dr. Kelly Tiller, president and chief executive office with Genera Energy, said about 61 farms within 50 miles of Vonore in nine counties, including Blount, have contracted to produce about 5,100 acres of switchgrass.
A star farm in the program is the Color Wheel Farm of Brad and Kim Black, which is located just outside Vonore. The 243-acre spread has been farmed by the Black family 191 years.
“This was a crop that just fell into our lap. It’s perfect for our operation,” Kim Black said.
Those touring the farm could view switchgrass that is about six feet high. Ken Goddard, of the UT Agricultural Extension Service, pointed to a corn crop beside the switchgrass. The corn was brown, obviously stressed from lack of rain, but the switchgrass was still green.
“Our farmers need a new alternative crop.” he said.
In addition to producing a new product, ethanol provides a wildlife habitat, keeps farmland in production and offers diversity to farmers.
Other area farmers on hand that have contracted to provide the grass were Alfred Davis of Loudon and Clarence McClure of Polk County.
Harvested in winter
Davis said switchgrass is harvested in the winter, a slow time for farmers. The same equipment can be used for switchgrass as for regular hay crops.
McClure said fertilizer costs about one-third of what corn requires. “Labor is not a whole lot different. Overall it is a real good fit.”
The research is to determine the best type of switchgrass to grow, cost-effective harvesting and refining methods.
Currently switchgrass is bailed into round rolls and transferred to the outer portions of the fields for pickup when needed.
The second portion of the process takes the grass to a 22-acre research campus adjacent to the biorefinery for large-scale biomass preprocessing. There the bales are received and stored, ready to be ground, and hammermilled until it is ready for the refinery. Eventually two large silos to handle the product will be built.
Stacks of hundreds of covered round bales are ready for when the process begins.
The third stage is a demonstration-scale refinery that has been producing ethanol from corn stover (stalks, stems, leaves, cobs) since January 2010 and is getting ready to transition to switchgrass.
Ethanol produced in Vonore is being used to operate a UT Motor Pool fleet of 250 flex-fuel minivans.
Hopes are the research and development project will result in large commercial refineries to be located in the area.