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Turning non-kernel corn parts into fuel is focus of Ohio study


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Stalks and leaves of a corn plant are ideal ingredients in creating ethanol; however, the high cost of collecting, storing, and transporting the material has limited its use in producing the biofuel.

Ajay Shah, an agricultural engineer with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), is testing a method that could cut the cost of collecting and delivering corn plant material for ethanol by up to 20 percent.

“We have an opportunity to significantly cut the cost of taking agricultural waste and turning it into a sustainable fuel,” said Shah, also an assistant professor in CFAES’ Biological Engineering division.

He recently received a $1 million grant from the USDA to test the effectiveness of a new method that harvests and transports corn plants intact – that is, the ears together with the stalks. His strategy has the potential to spur the lagging industry of so-called cellulosic ethanol (produced from the inedible parts of plants, most commonly corn here in the United States).

Gasoline purchased at the pump generally includes up to 10 percent ethanol, which is alcohol produced by fermenting corn kernels. According to USDA statistics, ethanol produced from the inedible parts of the corn plant makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. ethanol market.

“But there’s potential for tremendous growth if there’s a cheaper way to collect and deliver the plant material to turn it into ethanol,” Shah explained. “The system still would gather about half of the corn plant, leaving the remaining dry cornstalks in the field, to prevent erosion and return organic material and its associated nutrients to the soil.

“This could have a huge economic impact if it’s adopted by the biorefineries.”

Through the grant, he will work with farm equipment companies to develop machinery that could be used for the system and could eventually be put on the market.

“We’re working on improving the efficiency of everything from harvest to processing at a biorefinery,” Shah said. “We are focused on reducing the cost and environmental impacts of logistics.”

According to Shah, collecting and delivering the plant material can cost up to $100 per acre, which can account for up to half the cost of producing ethanol with the plant material.

His system involves harvesting the corn plant so the ears and a portion of the stalks are not separated in the field, but are sent as a single package to the biorefinery. Separating the kernels from the rest of the plant requires a combine, which is expensive and currently used in the field only a few months a year.

Shah said if the farmer were to collect the cobs and stalks at the same time, they could have these baled and stored on the farm or at a centralized storage location. A stationary machine that separates the grain from the rest of the plant could operate throughout the year, maximizing its use.

According to Shah, additional cost savings can result from delivery of the bales. Baling the corn plant material has been a challenge because it’s difficult to compact into dense bales, resulting in additional costs to transport.

The bed of a truck may be filled before its weight capacity is met, so he has been testing various ways to compact and bale the whole plant, including the ears with grain, so that the bales are more dense. “The more densely-packed the bales, the cheaper it is to transport them.”

Shah’s research focuses primarily on the sustainable agricultural production and biobased systems analysis. Some of his major research efforts include feedstock production and supply logistics for biobased and agro-industries, techno-economic analysis, and lifecycle assessment of biobased and agricultural systems.