The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just embarked on a new round of $25 million in funding for four new biofuel research and development projects, offering farmers and other rural property owners the potential for new alternatives to selling or leasing their land for natural gas fracking. The new projects all involve next-generation, non-food biomass, including waste products that would normally represent a costly burden to agricultural operations.
While hardly bringing the gas fracking industry to a screeching halt, federal investments in biofuel research projects like these could help take some of the bloom off the fracking rose by providing rural communities with more sustainable, less risky and less disruptive paths to long term economic revitalization.
When you talk about next-generation biofuel, you’re talking about more than cultivating inedible feedstocks that don’t compete with food or animal feed crops for land. You’re also talking about a whole lifecycle approach to making biofuel cultivation both a commercially viable and an environmentally sustainable prospect.
One of USDA’s new projects addresses this approach through a new cropping system, in which the weedy biofuel plant camelina will be rotated with wheat-based plants. The $5 million project, through Kansas State University, will study the commercial feasibility of converting camelina to biobased adhesives and coatings as well as biofuel.
Another $6.5 million will go to Ohio State University to demonstrate an innovative anaerobic digestion system (anaerobic refers to bacteria that thrive without oxygen) that can handle multiple feedstocks. The new system will use natural decomposition to break down manure, agricultural waste, woody biomass and biofuel crops.
In Utah, a company called Ceramatec, Inc. is getting $6.6 million for a project to develop new hybrids of sorghum for use in a fermentation-based process that yields petroleum-identical hydrocarbon molecules, which can then be used as drop-in replacements for petroleum feedstocks at existing refineries.
The fourth grant of $6.9 million will go to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Pennsylvania (a state that also happens to be ground zero for the fracking debate, as depicted in the documentary Gasland and the new movie Promised Land). The project involves a scaled down catalytic cracking process mimicking the systems used by the petroleum industry.
This one is particularly interesting because it involves distributed energy technology that is designed to be installed at individual farms, rather than at a large central location. Ideally, the catalytic units could be installed by individual farmers to convert either biomass (in this case, forest waste and perennial grasses like switchgrass) or horse manure into biofuel and high value biochemicals.
The distributed model also represents a technological giant step forward from the Obama Administration’s longer-running AgStar biogas program, which is designed to encourage livestock farmers to install biogas digesters on site.
The Tip of the Biofuel Iceberg
These four projects represent just the latest in a string of biofuel projects that also support rural economic development, which USDA now numbers at about 130.
They also dovetail with other efforts, including a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and the Navy to support the biofuel industry in the context of rural economic development.
Biofuel and bioproducts are also just one part of a broader effort to help U.S. farmers stay competitive through new energy strategies. Over the past couple of years USDA has provided hundreds of separate grants and loans to individual farmers for energy efficiency upgrades (grain dryers are a particular target) and new alternative energy installations, especially solar energy.
Fracking Not Stacking Up
There is no such thing as impact-free energy production, but all of these biofuel projects are designed to fit sustainably into the core business of the farmer, which all boils down to long term land stewardship.
As for fracking, the land stewardship angle is on pretty shaky ground. Evidence is beginning to mount that both the drilling operation itself and the disposal of spent fracking brine are putting local water supplies at risk for contamination.
Aside from local impacts, concerns have also been raised that methane leakage from gas drilling sites overwhelms any greenhouse gas emissions benefits to be gained from greater reliance on natural gas.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.