Kansas group works to turn crop stubble into energy

Farms have been becoming more like factories for decades. Now, a local nonprofit group wants to take a further step in the automation of agriculture.

The Kansas Alliance for BioRefining and BioEnergy was created in 2009 and was originally funded by the Kansas BioScience Authority to help commercialize research and technology that turns plants into energy and products.

It works behind the cutting edge of research, trying to bridge the gap between leading-edge products and daily practice.

Its biggest current project is the height of unglamour: figuring out how to lower the cost of collecting, storing and hauling crop stubble or grasses grown specifically for harvest. That material is the source of the carbon molecules that could be fodder for energy, such as ethanol, and raw material for thousands of products.

The project is funded by $4.8 million in federal stimulus money. The money was allocated in 2009 to weatherize the homes of low-income families in Kansas, but the state switched $20 million earlier this year to KABB and a western Kansas ethanol company when it determined that it couldn’t spend all of its allocation on weatherization in time.

For KABB, the money provides an unusual opportunity to study how to lower costs and improve efficiency for the high-cost technology of using cellulosic plants as a feedstock.

The group is buying several large pieces of advanced farm machinery to lower the cost of harvesting and transporting bulky crop stubble such as corn stalks or special purpose grass such as switchgrass . Increasing efficiency is key to improving its competitiveness with petroleum-based products.

The group is buying balers that compress plant material into denser cubes than normal balers. One version is towed behind a combine, saving the time and manpower of another run.

“The cornstalks never hit the ground,” said Jeff Roskam, the group’s chief executive.

KABB also bought a self-propelled bale wagon – made by Stinger of Haven – that picks the bales up from the field and puts them in long, tall stacks. Another piece of machinery will pick up the stacks and haul them to a processing plant or a cattle feedlot.

It can be done in less time with fewer people and less fuel. Roskam said they hope to get it out of the field and to the user for $35 a ton, including the capital cost. The current rate is about $70 a ton.

“By coming out with new equipment, more advanced equipment, we think that cost can be cut in half,” he said.

These machines are already being built, although they are not common. On this project, KABB isn’t developing new machinery but testing equipment and evaluating best practices.

One important question they hope to tackle is just how much crop stubble can farmers sustainably remove. That stubble now left in the fields helps hold the soil in place and contributes nutrients.

What KABB contributes to such a study is actually buying the equipment. It will be leased out to custom cutting crews, and Roskam said the project should pay for itself.

The value to the rest of the world is a potential new source of fuel, chemicals and more. It can truly be an alternative to petroleum, at least in some uses, he said.

“It’s a hydrocarbon versus a carbohydrate as the base molecule,” he said.

The potential, said Emily Juhnke, KABB’s marketing director, is large.

“It’s not sexy, but this piece is to show farmers and (others) that there is a better way of harvesting and using crops that could influence an industry eventually, and Kansas could be a big part of that,” she said.

The group also has other projects and initiatives to help commercialize bio-based research and technology.

The agency is seeking a grant from the USDA for the production of bio-based jet or diesel fuel. This area is unusual for its mixture of agriculture and energy, and potentially, nearby customers.

“There are very few places like south-central Kansas that have refining infrastructure, cropland and a large aviation base,” he said.