Agriculture This Week - Farms can still be part of fuel future

The idea of farms being a source of energy is hardly a new one.

Ethanol produced from farm grains was thought not so long ago to be the answer to high crude oil prices and to low grain prices for producers. There were those with a vision of ethanol production plants turning corn, or barley, or wheat to an alternate fuel spotted across North America.

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But, grain prices jumped, oil prices dove, and the growth of an ethanol sector basically burned out.

In a world of low oil prices the desire to find alternate sources of renewable fuel naturally dwindle, but if you look longer term the need remains.

Oil reserves are finite, even if you wish to argue their life expectancy, and when the resource hits some level in the future the cost of getting at remaining reserves are going to climb, adding some eventual urgency to alternatives.

The most natural alternative at present seems to be ethanol, although whether grain-based production is viable long term is unclear.

The world population grows, and demands to keep people fed, and to maintain a level of livestock production – veggie burgers notwithstanding – means grain production may have better places to be consumed than to produce fuel for our all-terrain vehicles.

An alternative to grain as an alternative is likely to be biomass.

That is where some current research in British Columbia is intriguing.

“University of BC researchers are looking beyond forest material to crop straws and chaff to build renewable power products,” notes a recent article at www.producer.com

What that generally means is turning cereal straw into pellets.

Producing biofuel pellets from crop residue is the focus of a new project by researchers at the UBC explains the article.

The goal is to produce pellets with consistent quality from under-utilized and low-quality agricultural biomass resources in Canada, since Ag biomass is a huge resource. The amount of cereal and legume crop residue produced in the world annually is in the billions of tons, details the story.

Certainly straw is a resource that has drawn interest before.

Flax straw was going to turn into a range of products including car door panels, when a plant was built near Canora, SK. The project had government support, and Cargill involvement, and still couldn’t create the anticipated demand to make it viable, so the plant closed.

In nearby Kamsack a plant was going to turn cereal straw into building sheets to compete with chipboard in home builds. It never managed to find the markets it sought and closed.

The straw of course remains, renewed with each growing season. It sits there underutilized and just maybe biomass pellets can be the answer, if it can be viable given baling costs, hauling, pelleting costs, and of course accessing markets.

It’s a big ‘ask’ but ultimately energy alternatives will be required.

Calvin Daniels is Editor with Yorkton This Week.

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