Agriculture has a challenge in front of it: the opportunity to help meet the energy needs of the future, said the director of Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Dr. Mark Hussey, speaking at the "Alternative Energy Sources from Agriculture" field tour on Aug. 8 at research facilities near Bushland, said agricultural research has helped meet the food, feed and fiber needs of this nation for more than a century.
Now it is being called on to help meet another need.
"I'm confident, as we look to the future, agriculture will be looked to as a provider of food, feed, fiber and fuel," Hussey said.
The challenge by President George W. Bush is to replace 30 percent of the current petroleum use in this country by 2030, he said.
Grain-based ethanol production will begin in the Texas Panhandle early next year, Hussey said. This, and other ethanol production nationwide, is important in meeting the country's short-term need for renewable fuels.
But the entire corn crop produced in the nation is not enough to meet the president's goal, he said. It is going to require the conversion of biomass from grasslands, shrublands and dedicated energy crops, such as sweet and high biomass sorghums.
Meeting the 30 percent goal will take 1 billion tons of biomass per year, Hussey said. That is 140,000 tractor-trailer loads full of biomass delivered to a refinery 365 days a year.
It's a tremendous challenge," he said. "Some folks liken it to the Manhattan Project.
"The research we saw today was really setting the stage."
Issues such as logistics still have to be researched and worked out, Hussey said. "How do you move those feedstocks to the refinery, and how do we store, pretreat and convert it to liquid fuels efficiently?"
How long before conversion of these grasses and sorghums into ethanol is realistically possible?
"Some folks think three to six years," he said.
Pilot plants are going to be in place soon and once the logistics of harvesting, moving and storing biomass are determined, it will happen, Hussey said.
What's beyond that?
Within 15 years, he said, these feedstocks and bio-based fuels will be converted directly to gasoline and diesel. Ethanol will continue to be essential, playing a role in oxygenating the fuels.
"Today we saw dedicated feedstocks, sorghum, perennial wheat, and the conversion of byproducts such as distiller's grains in support of the feeding industry," Hussey said. "We had a chance to look at native grasslands and shrublands."
No single crop or method of fuel conversion is the answer to meeting future energy needs, he said. Regional-based solutions will be best, with a combination of feedstocks considered.
"We talk about agriculture being from field to fork," Hussey said. "In the future, I think we'll be talking about field to fuel tank."