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Is Switchgrass the Biofuel Source of the Future?
Written by Sergei Blair Correspondent

Penn State Extention hosts 'green energy' day in Upper Hanover 

        Although it may look like an ordinary tall grass, scientists from Penn State's Cooperative Extension, Montgomery County, said switchgrass—commonly found across much of the eastern and southern Unites States—can be the next best source for biofuel and alternative energy production.

        Educators and researchers from the coopreative extension presented their studies and demonstrating how fuel is created to about 40 farmers from Montgomery County during Farm Energy Day, Tuesday, September 9 at the site of 80-acre switchgrass farm in Upper Hanover.

        On this day farmers sat behind tables in a large barn in the middle of the McDonnell's farm on Mill Hill Road, and, much like in a classroom setting, took notes as speakers lectured using Power Point slideshows and videos.

        Switchgrass, a native perennial crop that only recently started to be used to produce biofuel, was the main topic of presentation as researchers stressed its important uses and long-term financial investment opportunities.

        According to Sarah Wurzbacher, educator from Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, many Pennsylvania farmers prefer using switchgrass straw for large animal bedding because it tends to last longer and be more absorbent.  She said the crop also proved to be beneficial in poultry production because, if reused properly, it drastically lowers incidence of foot pad dermatitis—an infection on chickens' feet often resulting from unfluffed bedding and unsanitary conditions. 

        "It's really up to the ingenuity of the producer to find where that added value shows up," Wurzbacher said. "You have to know what markers around you are like…and because these are perennial grasses that require some establishment time, try to find long-term contracts so that you know you're going to have that return until you take back your investment," she advised the farmers.

        Frank McDonnell, whose farm was used as venue for the event, said he began growing switchgrass nine years ago after reading about its many uses. Today, he has the largest switchgrass farm of its kind in the county.

        McDonnell demonstrated in his barn the entire process of harvesting a biomass crop and converting it into biofuel. He said switchgrass gained its popularity because it was found to be high in lignin, which is mostly carbon.

        The 78-year-old farmer said he grinds 20 lbs. of switchgrass then cooks the contents in a large pot for six hours before it can turn into black liquor. About 15 gallons of liquor is created as result. He then treats the substance with muriatic acid to extract between 12-15 lbs. of lignin.

        With the help of John J. Savarese, a chemist who runs Mobinol Fuel Co. in Collegeville, the lignin is then formulated with several compounds and eventually turns into semi-refined fuel. McDonnell said he gets about 10 gallons of biofuel at the end of the process.

        "It's a slow process which demands a lot of time, energy and funding," McDonnell said. "I have a lot of faith that what I have started would eventually lead us to a development of a good product."

        But that manual conversion process could change and help farmers like McDonnell with the development of a new mobile pyrolysis process. Engineers showcased a recently patented mobile CRIBS pyrolysis reactor at the farm, a 27-ft. mechanical structure that is able to convert two tons of biomass daily into 80 gallons of biofuel. The entire process is done at the site, which would reduce the need to ship the crop to a local bio refinery.

        Members from the Montgomery County Farm Bureau and State Representative Marcy Toepel (R-147th District) were at hand at the event to meet farmers and offer information.

        "I have a very strong appreciation for the value of the farming community and the work that they do in Pennsylvania," Toepel said.





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