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Finding The Right Crop For Cellulosic Ethanol

“We need to create a plantation crop to meet our needs.” -MAURICE HLADIK

The eventual raw material requirements of cellulosic ethanol production could exceed the available supplies of straw and stover, an industry expert told the Canadian Federation of Agriculture recently.

“Straw and stover can’t do it all,” Maurice Hladik, former director of marketing for Iogen Corp. and now a biofuel consultant, told the annual meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. “We need to create a plantation crop to meet our needs.”

A cellulosic plant will requi re several hundred thousand tonnes of biomass annually, he said. There are many reasons to doubt farmers can meet that demand so the industry is looking at alternative sources of supply. Ottawabased Iogen has contracts with farmers in the region to grow twitchgrass on marginal land to see if that crop would work as a perennial and reliable feedstock source.

This could be better for the soil than annual cultivation for crops, he added. Also using marginal lands avoids any competition with food crops.

A proposed ethanol plant in Saskatchewan would need 700 tonnes of straw a day, he said. “That creates a tremendous logistics challenge and is the top priority right now. We need to have a big inventory of straw so we can keep in production.”

With petroleum prices low because of the global recession, ethanol manufacturers are feeling the squeeze, he added. “I can’t say what we could pay for the straw.”

Hladik is convinced the future for ethanol is cellulos ic, but corn-based ethanol was an essential first step for the industry because it showed consumers, vehicle manufacturers and governments that biofuels can work as a fuel source. The United States is giving the industry a big boost with mandated cellulosic ethanol volumes.

Don McCabe of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, told Hladik that biofuel companies should encourage farmers to become shareholders. “Farmers need a return on their investment in their farms.”

McCabe said in a later interview that farmers need to be cautious when converting marginal lands to biofuel feedstocks. A lot of the land is best used as pasture rather than cropped. “There may also be biodiversity issues.”

Higher crop yields will go a long way to reducing any disputes over crops versus fuels, he added. “We need to find the balance among crops from good land used for food and fuel as well as how much marginal land we can put into production for biofuels.” At the same time, ethanol is important to farmers because it can help them get value out of everything they produce.

Hladik said the plantations would be seeded to perennial crops suitable for biofuels and could be harvested once a year at a time that suits the producer and fulfils any environmental protection requirements.

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