26 Oktober 2005

Iowa: State works to recycle cornstalks into fertilizer

Thanks to the Davenport consultant’s help, and a new $1.85 million federal grant, Iowa State University officials soon will launch a research project to convert corn stover into fertilizer.

As technology transfer consultant for Davenport’s New Ventures AgTech Initiative, Meier said the concept would help reduce one of the biggest sources of solid waste in the country.

Corn stover — so named because it is “anything you can stick in a stove” — also might cut down the need for farmers to use anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, an expensive and dangerous chemical often stolen to make the highly addictive drug methamphetamine.

“It’s my job to research new technologies that are being created throughout the world and try to bring them back to our region,” Meier said. “That involves bringing the right people and agencies together to make things happen.”

Iowa State University’s application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, was one of 670 proposals sent in from throughout the country. Just 11 proposals won grants this month and the corn stover idea was the only winner from Iowa.

It all started with Meier, working for the New Ventures program, sponsored by the Eastern Iowa Community College District, in downtown Davenport. He heard about a stover-conversion process used in China and wondered whether something like it could happen in Iowa.

Discussions with a researcher in Maryland and others eventually led Meier to EPRIDA, a start-up company in Georgia that takes peanut hulls and converts them into fertilizer. The process converts the peanut hulls into a carbon-char substance, he said.

“It’s basically an ash product,” he added, describing it as “very concentrated” with natural fertilizing elements. “If they can do it with peanut hulls, we should be able to recreate the process using corn stover instead.”

Meanwhile, Beth Taylor, the New Ventures project manager, learned the USDA was issuing a call for biomass energy research proposals, offering grant money for the best ideas. So, Meier contacted Robert Brown, director of the Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies at Iowa State University.

“Russ made the phone call that got the ball rolling and got us connected to the major players in the project,” Brown said.

That research is expected to begin over the next few months.

That is important timing, Meier said, because most of the country’s anhydrous ammonia supply is produced or shipped through the Gulf Coast, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

In the hurricane’s wake, as natural gas prices continue to rise, anhydrous prices also are going up. In the early 1990s, prices hovered around $200 a ton for anhydrous ammonia. Last year, the price was about $335 a ton, according to the USDA.

Walcott farmer Tom Brus, who has farmed 280 acres since 1983, said he does not like to handle anhydrous, but still is not convinced that corn stover fertilizer is the answer.

Most farmers do not mind leaving the organic debris in their fields after the harvest because it helps reduce soil erosion. With stalk bottoms still in the ground, the dirt is less likely to drift away, Brus said.

Other farmers use some of the stover as livestock bedding.

“I leave it,” Brus said, looking out over his field. He said the bulky stover would be expensive to transport to processing facilities, wherever they might be built. “I don’t see it being very popular, but I could be wrong,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Source: The Quad-City Times News Oct. 25, 2005.

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