A beneficial use for the millions of tons of surplus straw produced in the Pacific Northwest every year may be just around the corner.

Researchers with USDA-ARS and the Western Research Institute are developing technology for converting the straw into synthetic gas that can be used to produce electricity or liquid fuel. In a prototype gasification reactor, straw is re-duced to small particles that are converted into a mixture of vaporized gasses that can be used to produce synthetic liquid gas.

The idea is to develop small gasification units that farmers can afford to buy, so the cost of transporting the straw would be eliminated. The scientists believe that, in the near future, the gasification system will provide an environmen-tally beneficial alternative to field-burning grass straw plus an economically competitive alternative to fossil-based fu-els.

Gary Banowetz, a USDA-ARS plant physiologist at Corvallis, OR, estimates that 60 gallons of liquid fuel could be pro-duced per ton of straw. With 7 million tons of excess grass and small grain straw produced each year, the Pacific Northwest has the potential to produce 420 million gallons of liquid fuel, he says.