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Agriculture and energy a work in progress

April 16, 2012
By Ashley Rittenhouse - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

Whether it's through using corn to produce ethanol, or using farm land for the purpose of drilling for oil and natural gas, agriculture plays a vital role in the development of energy opportunities.

"As we move forward, alternative energy is going to be an important part of the total energy makeup that we have both in Ohio and nationally," said Steven Slack, director of The Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, located in Wooster.

Slack said, for example, there is a lot of activity around the country related to biofuel crops.

"An example would be miscanthus, switchgrass and even some fast growing trees like poplar trees," he said. "They're being grown specifically as a green energy crop."

Miscanthus is ornamental grass native to Japan, the Philippines, India, East Asia, Malaysia and Polynesia that has made its way into the United States. Slack said it is fast growing and can be reduced to pellets that can be burned as fuel.

The development of ethanol sources is also a growing trend, Slack said, with most ethanol plants using corn as a source of fuel.

Other ethanol plants, he said, are considering using lignocellulosic, which uses the ligin which keeps trees standing upright.

Slack noted that one of the biggest challenges in ethanol production is the extraction process.

He said getting starch from trees and drawing sugar from corn in order to reduce it to ethanol is a difficult process, so the agricultural research and development center has been working to make the process more efficient and effective.

Even waste, Slack said, can be turned into energy.

He said this form of energy and others are being developed as a result of food processing and other types of companies looking for ways to eliminate waste.

"Through anaerobic digestion you can take food waste, animal waste and other waste, turn it into methane and then it can be transformed to electricity or compressed natural gas," he said. "The electricity can be sold as an energy source or the compressed natural gas is something the automobile industry is looking at as an alternative fuel."

Slack said from a land use standpoint, agriculture will also play a role in the shale gas boom that is already occurring in some parts of the state as a result of the use of hydraulic fracturing.

Also known as fracking, the drilling process involves shattering rock thousands of feet underground with a combination of water, sand and chemicals.

"The OSU extension has been active in this area in providing information to people so they can make decisions on what they may or may not want to do on their land," Slack said. "We need to provide unbiased information as people make decisions on things."

Mike Lloyd, an extension educator for the Noble County Ohio State University Extension office and the interim director of the Washington County Ohio State University Extension office, said it's really too early to tell what the boom will mean for farmers.

"There's some thought that as some of the landowners get these funds they may reinvest it into the agricultural operations, but some folks will probably take their new found wealth and retire to Florida," he said.



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