Researchers look at field-to-biofuels models
Francis Epplin, Jean and Patsy Neustadt chair and professor in Oklahoma State University's Department of Agricultural Economics, focuses his research on the economics of agricultural production and resource use. He and his team conduct economic analyses of alternative crop and livestock production systems, including the expected economics of dedicated energy crops.
This research contributes to one of the key objectives among the integrated research activities of OSU's Biobased Products and Energy Center (BioPEC).
"Our comprehensive field-to-biofuels models are designed to identify key cost components and potential bottlenecks, and to reveal opportunities for reducing costs and prioritizing research," Epplin said. "The models can be used to determine for a specific region the most economical sources of biomass, optimal number of harvest machines, timing of harvest and storage, biorefinery size, biorefinery location and conversion system."
The models also can be used to determine the biofuel price required for an economically viable cellulosic biofuels system. The ultimate goal is to develop a profitable business model, he said.
Approximately half of the 33 million acres of land in Oklahoma are managed as rangelands and about a quarter are managed as either permanent improved pastures or for pasture and hay. According to Epplin, the overwhelming majority of these range and pasture acres are used to produce forage to feed the state's more than 5 million cattle and calves, because at present it seems to be the best option.
"However, if an economically competitive technology were available to convert cellulosic biomass into biobased products and/or biofuels, some of these acres could be bid from livestock production and used to produce feedstock for biorefineries," he said. "In addition the state has about one million acres enrolled in the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program that also could be used to produce feedstock."
The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandates that 36 billion gallons per year of biofuels be produced in the United States by 2022, with 21 billion gallons coming from feedstocks other than corn grain. Fulfilling this mandate may require the use of several lignocellulosic feedstocks such as forest biomass, urban waste and biomass from dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass.
Development of energy crops was envisioned by the U.S. Department of Energy as a way to convert marginal land, including millions of Oklahoma acres, to a more productive use and at the same time reduce the cost of government commodity and conservation programs that are funded to entice land owners to set aside land from the production of traditional crops, Epplin added.
"Our research has determined that Oklahoma has a comparative advantage in switchgrass production," he said. "The USEPA (2010) estimated that 85 percent of the biofuel produced from switchgrass in the U.S. if the 2007 EISA mandates are maintained through 2022, would be from biorefineries located in Oklahoma."