Washington state grass-seed growers may soon be able to turn their straw into gold, or actually, liquid fuel.

USDA-ARS researchers, a nonprofit group called Farm Power, and the Western Research Institute in Laramie, WY, are in the process of developing gasification units that convert pelleted straw into liquid fuel.

“The straw is not worth an awful lot — you can't ship it far economically,” says Gary Banowetz, USDA-ARS research leader. “So our whole focus is on developing machines that can work on farms. The technology is there to do that, but the challenge is whether we can do it economically.”

The idea is to develop gasification units that would cost no more than a combine, or about $300,000, adds Larry Albin, Farm Power CEO and director of the Straw to Energy Project. That way, growers can afford the units, process the straw into fuel and then use the fuel within their operations or sell it.

“Our target is for the farmer to generate an 18-20% return on investment,” says Albin.

Originally, the Straw to Energy Project focused on gasifying straw to power a diesel generator that produced electricity. The electricity then could be sold to a power company. A byproduct of the burned straw, activated carbon, could also be sold to municipalities to help clean water systems, says Albin.

“But electricity here is relatively cheap, and you can't make a profit on electricity sales alone,” Banowetz says. So his research has turned toward liquid fuels.

“Liquid fuels are essentially ethanol,” he says, “and ethanol has been made on farms through a fermentation process.” Fuel processed through a gasification unit, however, does not need fermentation or refinement.

That means a grower who turns his straw into liquid fuel can burn the fuel in his equipment and/or use it to generate his own electricity and sell the activated carbon.

How much energy the straw will produce, and how this will impact growers, are being researched, Banowetz says.

“Over the next year, we will build the unit and test it in a lab environment. Then we will move it to the farm and test it for a whole year by processing a year's worth of straw,” he adds.

Albin says that they will analyze the fuel produced and whether or not the straw should be pelletized.

“One of our goals is to get it in a form that's fully automated,” says Banowetz. “We envision that you would store straw pellets in a steel grain bin, auger the pellets from the bin to the gasifier and, once the process is started, let the system produce energy.”

For more information, contact Albin at LarryAlbin@msn.com.