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Biomass Research in its First Year

In our final week of discussion on alternative crops, biomass crops are getting some attention. Ron Gehl, assistant professor and soil science specialist with NC State is working on biomass crops in research plots across the state:

“A lot of what I do with biomass crops is related to soil nutrition and the effects of growing these new crops on soil characteristics. A lot of these dedicated biomass crops are new to us and to growers so we are trying to figure out a couple of things: one, what grows in NC from the mountains to the coast and what goes into the production and what kind of yield potential there is and what kind of effects does that have in terms of sustainability.”

One of the ideas in growing biomass is utilizing spray fields to produce something other than Coastal Bermuda, which often goes to waste. Gehl outlines some of the issues being addressed in growing biomass on regulated spray fields:

“That’s one of the biggest projects we have going on right now. We are trying to figure out what we can grow on spray fields, more specifically, spray fields are all regulated for the amount of manure that can be placed on them, depending on the nitrogen content of the manure and then the removal of the nitrogen by the crop that is grown there. We are evaluating what is the nutrient removal if we were to grow a grass like switch grass, giant Miscanthus, or annuals like forged or sweet sorghum. We really need to understand the nutrient dynamics, to see if growers can use those crops to remove the nitrogen they apply.”

Gehl explains that while the numbers are still out, this first year of growing biomass crops on spray fields went well:

“We were able to get these grasses established on the spray fields. We are just now learning about the yield potential. Some of the perennial grasses don’t reach full maturity for about three years so time will tell what kind of long term biomass we can produce.”

Chemtex, an Italian biofuel company has expressed an interest in building a plant in Sampson County, using various biomass as feedstock, and Gehl explains that while their research is focused in that area, it’s really statewide:

“We are focused in a three county radius for that project, in Sampson, Duplin and Wayne counties. We are investigating the same types of crops in production all the way from the lower to the upper piedmont and then out to the mountains, because the climate, soils and landscape are so different going across the state from east to west.”

So, are there any producers growing biomass right now?

“None that I’m aware of. We do have some growers that have been growing switch grass for a while. That is probably one of the more traditional biomass fuel crop. Its been grown as a forage crop so as we are transitioning to a bio fuel arena, switch grass becomes an option as a dual purpose.”

Tomorrow, we’ll hear from an executive for Chemtex on their plans for a biofuels plant in Sampson County.
NC State Soil Scientist, Ron Gehl.

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