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USDA Presents New Techniques for Producing Bio-Fuel at Upper Hanover Farm
Written by Gabby Glinski

The USDA presented a new machine for producing bio oil last week at the McDonnell's farm in Upper Hanover Township. The self-efficient machine reduces the amount of labor needed to produce the fuel. 

     Last Wednesday representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hosted a switchgrass alternative energy presentation for farmers and potential growers at Frank McDonnell's farm on Mill Hill Road in East Greenville.

     Switchgrass, a commonly found grass across the eastern and southern United States, is a new biofuel and alternative energy solution. Many small farms have taken on growing and producing biofuel from switchgrass. The grass is grown from seed and can be grown easily on a large scale, producing up to 8 to 12 pounds per acre. The grass is grown in the spring and harvested in the winter with conventional hay mowing and baling equipment.

     Switchgrass can be condensed into fuel pellets for combustion, converted into a biofuel or be used for low-grade feeding and animal bedding.

     McDonnell started growing switchgrass 11 years ago in collaboration with the USDA. At the time, McDonnell was interested in growing a crop that wouldn't require much maintenance. Switchgrass, being a perennial plant, reduced the amount of labor and fertilizer used on his land and proved to be an exciting process for McDonnell.

     McDonnell mows, bales and grinds the switchgrass for the USDA to turn into bio oil. The only energy the process requires is that of mowing, baling and grinding the plant.

     "It was only within the last year that we were able to make bio oil with it" stated McDonnell on the previous tests the USDA ran on his farm.

     With new findings with switchgrass energy production and the techniques involved, the USDA asked McDonnell to host a presentation on his farm. Attendees from across the country gathered in McDonnell's barn for lunch and a demonstration of the energy production.

     Dr. Akwasi Boateng, chemical engineer with the USDA, gave a lecture on the foreseen long-term financial investment opportunities, efficiency of new production techniques and benefits of switchgrass. The product is now under research to be potentially turned into plant based chemicals or plastics.

     Creating a bio oil was only the first step. Within the last year, the USDA has made progress on the technique used to create the bio oil. 

     Farmers like McDonnell, used to grind and cook the switchgrass by hand. The process would reduce 20 pounds of switchgrass into 10 gallons of crude oil. The bio oil would then have to be taken to a refinery to process the crude fuel into a finer, useable substance. A new patent machine, which was on display at McDonnell's farm two years ago, is changing that process after new improvements.

     The USDA presented their new machine, Combustion Reduction Integrative Pyrolysis (CRIPS), to the attendees of the event. The CRIPS is a 27 foot mobile structure mounted on a trailer that is able to convert two tons of switchgrass into 80 gallons of biofuel daily.

     Now, the machine is installed at McDonnell's farm in collaboration with the USDA. The biofuel produced is being tested for oil concentration, consistency and chemical combinations.

     Mark Schaffer, chemical engineer for USDA gave a demonstration of the new machine, showing the potential switchgrass growers the efficiency of the method.

     "Forty-five percent of the material coming in is made into fuel," stated Shaffer, "Once we start introducing the feed into the machine, it can run by itself."

     The CRIPS machine is able to run completely on its own; relying on a percentage of the fuel input to keep the process running. With this new technology, the entire process is able to be done on site, reducing the need to ship the crude biofuel to a local bio refinery, making the new method more efficient than cooking the fuel by hand.

     McDonnell is looking forward to what the bio oil will be able to produce, hoping for new breakthroughs with the research soon. "The future looks good for switchgrass, that's what I know."





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