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US research team receives $10m grant to explore AD options for farmers

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A new US federal grant will allow a research team led by Iowa State University, Penn State and Roeslein Alternative Energy (RAE) to develop new methods of turning biomass and manure into fuel.

The five-year, $10 million (€8.68 million) grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agricultural will power the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural reGenerative Enterprise (C-CHANGE) as it works to develop new value chains on US farms, with emphasis on renewable natural gas (RNG).

The project director on the transdisciplinary and multi-institutional grant is Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of natural resource ecology and management and associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State. Schulte Moore said the consortium will develop methods for farmers to make more efficient use of resources.

“We recognise the benefits of current production systems but also that there’s a lot of inefficiency in how we use land, sunlight, nutrients and water,” said Schulte Moore. “We also realise that farmers and rural communities are struggling.

“We know we can address these inefficiencies by adding perennials and recoupling crop, livestock and energy systems. Research is needed to ensure these combinations are also profitable.”

C-CHANGE researchers are developing new ways for farmers to produce RNG that could be used as an energy source both on and off farms. The project focuses on anaerobic digestion (AD) and new separation technologies, allowing biogas to be upgraded to RNG and distributed through the gas pipeline network.

“For more than 50 years, AD has been promoted as a way to both improve the environmental management of livestock manures and to produce renewable energy,” said Tom Richard, director of Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “But the adoption of AD has been limited by high capital costs and management complexity, which has slowed the advance of this industry and the underlying technology.

“We will be working with farmers and other industrial partners to update AD for the 21st century, applying the principles of process intensification, automation, and economies of scale to reduce costs, simplify operations and expand digester feedstocks beyond manure to incorporate perennial grasses and winter crops into their operations as a source of biomass for the digesters.”

RAE is already pioneering work in the area of the grant. Since 2012, the firm has been working with Smithfield Foods to adjust practices on their pig farms, resulting in greater efficiencies, improved environmental outcomes and a profitable RNG business.

Company founder Rudi Roeslein said energy production from biogas could spark “significant job creation” in the alternative energy and agriculture sectors, while also providing new habitat for wildlife. “Ecological services from this perennial biomass crop would prevent flooding, reduce nutrients running into our streams and rivers that could save hundreds of billions of taxpayer money on water treatment facilities while improving the health of our future generations,” said Roeslein.