Charley, Charley, Grow the Barley
Off‐season biofuel crops, such as winter barley, don’t hurt food prices.
Corn is king of the U.S. biofuel market, but the ethanol made from it produces only slightly less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, and the diversion of corn from food to fuel increases food prices.
Kevin Hicks, BS ’74, MS ’76, research leader at the Sustainable Biofuels and Co‐products Research Unit in Wyndmoor, Pa., for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, has spent his career searching for alternatives to corn that are friendlier to the environment, economical and popular with consumers.
An easy way to avoid food verses fuel concerns, Hicks says, is to grow bio‐crops in the off‐season when food crops aren’t in the ground. During the past decade, Hicks has worked with plant breeders to develop strains of high‐starch, low‐fiber winter barley that can be grown after corn harvest but before corn planting. As a cover crop over winter, winter barley also lessens soil erosion. Hicks says lab testing shows that the winter barley strains cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent — enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could consider it an advanced biofuel, making it eligible for special tax credits.
Hicks submitted his findings to EPA, which has been reviewing the case for more than two years, but the agency has not yet ruled on whether the crop qualifies as an advanced biofuel.
Hicks is also working on “fast pyrolysis,” a thermochemical reaction that can convert biomass into bio oil, which can be refined into “green” gasoline. The technology uses a fluidized bed — a bubbling layer of super‐heated sand — to vaporize pulverized biomass. The vapor is then cleaned and condensed into bio oil.
The process needs more tinkering to, among other things, reduce the oxygen content in the bio oil, Hicks says, but he is hopeful they can ramp up to farm scale in three years.
Hicks says the next year will be a good measuring stick for how the world of biofuels will look like in the future because many big projects underway have promised to deliver results in 2013.
“[This year] is really going to tell the tale,” Hicks says. “If they’re successful, we’ll be successful.”