Researchers looking at biofuel crops for area

By Argen Duncan: Freedom New Mexico

The High Plains agriculture scene could get in on the action in biofuel production, and its profits, if two researchers have their way.

The two scientists at New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Clovis are looking into what biofuel-producing crops could most benefit eastern New Mexico and west Texas farmers.

“Generally speaking, our goal is to see if different crops are, first of all, adaptable — adapted to this area — and sustainable as biofuel feedstock,” said Extension Agronomy Specialist Mark Marsalis.

Marsalis is working with cellulosic biofuel feedstocks, plants whose leaves and stalks, aside from their grain, can be fermented to produce ethanol.

So far, he has studied water use and production of wheat stubble and sweet sorghum, not to be confused with grain sorghum.

Assistant Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences Sangu Angadi is investigating which oilseed crops — in his case, sunflowers, canola, safflower, camelina and mustard — grow most efficiently in this area.

Angadi said the Department of Energy doesn’t consider Curry and Roosevelt counties a place for biofuel production because of its lack of water. He and Marsalis must find something to fit the area as an alternative crop and to be water efficient, Angadi continued.

With cellulosic ethanol, the energy harvested is what plants absorb from sunlight and store. That makes cellulosic ethanol very efficient because of the good energy output for how much energy is invested in production.

“If we can use all that sunlight energy trapped in the plant, that is the best way to go,” Angadi said. “But it is the technology of the future.”

While biodiesel isn’t as efficient, he continued, the technology already exists and is simple enough for people to use in their garages. There just isn’t enough feedstock.

Marsalis said cellulosic conversion isn’t as simple and a lot of questions remain on the conversion, necessary characteristics of feedstock and logistics such as transportation.

Also, while cellulosic biofuel crops require more water for more growth, Angadi said, oilseed crops show a better response with less water if they receive it when they flower.

Raising biofuel feedstocks, some of which are also used for feed at dairies, gives farmers more options in the market. Marsalis and Angadi hope to learn enough about their crops to help farmers pick the one that best suits their operations.

For example, Angadi hopes to learn enough to tell farmers which oilseed crop does best with a particular amount of water.

“That way, they can pick the best crop which they can grow and which will have the best effect on the farm economy,” he said.

Angadi said growing biofuel feedstock could also allow for more crop rotation and possibly let farmers make their own biodiesel.

If farmers produce enough feedstock, he said, alternative energy producers can bring a biofuel plant here.

Both men are working with researchers in other states and using federal grants.