Biofuels outlook bright in Virginia

Virginia Tech scientists are working on ways to convert barley into ethanol and potentially triple the region’s barley production.

While Virginia Tech researchers and their peers around the country search for bio-based alternatives to fossil fuels, Virginia Cooperative Extension is ensuring the state’s farmers and industry leaders have access to the latest opportunities and information regarding biofuels in Virginia.

“Leveraging our connections with Virginia’s agricultural industry and research at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension is partnering with bioenergy industry leaders on several projects around the state,” says Jim Riddell, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources, and interim assistant director of community viability for Extension.

Extension agents and specialists have been educating farmers about opportunities to market barley as an energy crop and about the logistics of growing barley — especially in southeast and southside Virginia. Extension, along with Virginia Tech’s barley breeding program, has worked closely with Osage Bioenergy on the creation of a $160 million plant in Hopewell, Va., that will convert barley into ethanol and potentially triple the region’s barley production.

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“We have been trying to revive Virginia’s barley industry for some time now,” explains Wade Thomason, Extension grains specialist. “When in full operation, the Hopewell facility will need to pull from the entire mid-Atlantic region for 30 million bushels of barley each year.”

Since 2007, Extension has also worked in an advisory role with Red Birch Energy, a startup company in Bassett, Va., that aims to convert canola — a winter crop — into biodiesel to sell at a local truck stop. Stephen Barts, agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Pittsylvania County, says “We have several small-scale plots of canola in Pittsylvania that we will be studying over the next few months for production value and costs.”

The Red Birch Energy project follows in the footsteps of other Extension work on canola, the seed for which was created at Virginia State University. “We are asking ourselves, ‘Can the economics of canola match the farmer’s economics?’” says Martha Walker, community viability area specialist in Extension’s Central District. “This is a real issue for farmers looking to grow energy crops.”

Walker is also working with Piedmont BioProducts in Gretna, Va., which received a $1.2 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission to convert multiple types of perennial grasses into biodiesel.

Perennial switchgrass has caught the attention of researchers and industry officials for its potential as a biofuel.

“When the technology is ready, we will help get the word out about the project and educate Virginia’s growers about how they can develop biofuels for large-scale transportation needs,” says Walker. “The community viability program area stands ready to connect entrepreneurs to researchers at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, but we wait on the entrepreneurs to make their own business decisions.”

One perennial grass that has caught the attention of researchers and industry officials alike is switchgrass. Extension has translated Virginia Tech’s agronomic research on the tall, hardy crop into outreach and education initiatives for Virginia’s farmers. For example, Extension conducted a survey to determine whether Virginia producers are interested in growing switchgrass. “Virginians are interested in seeing how we can create new markets for agricultural products and become less dependent on foreign sources of oil,” observes John Ignosh, an agricultural by-products utilization specialist for Extension’s Northwest District. “Developing a bioenergy industry in rural Virginia could serve as a means to reach both of these goals while fostering rural economic development.”

Extension has also been demonstrating a transportable pyrolysis unit to Shenandoah Valley producers. The unit converts poultry litter into bio-oil, producer gas, and fertilizer. Developed by Foster Agblevor, associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, the pyrolysis unit not only allows farmers to use the bio-oil as an alternative fuel source or sell it for profit, but also has the potential to remove phosphorus and nitrogen pollution from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

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