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Alternative fuels research growing in state

Rising energy costs are fueling research for converting natural materials, or biomass, to energy in Mississippi. Those natural materials can be animal manure, corn and crop and forestry residues.

One of the most interesting projects and the first of its kind in the United States is the operation at Brinson Farms in Jefferson Davis County on U.S. 84 between Prentiss and Collins. A family farm for seven generations, Brinson Farms has been in poultry production for the past 10 years and run by John Logan. For the alternative fuel project, he is using poultry litter to make methane gas, which will be used to run several generators to make electricity for 10 chicken houses. The excess gas will be used to heat the buildings that house 238,000 chickens.

“It’s been an ambitious project for sure,” Logan said, “but we’re getting close to production. We’ll have a showpiece here.”

They should be producing methane gas in 60 to 90 days, he predicts, after two and a half years of research. It all began when Logan, retired from the computer business and teaching on the college level, decided to find a way to lower the farm’s energy costs.

“Electricity and propane gas are the largest expenses on the farm, so I looked at alternative fuel,” he said. “I put in a bulk plant to replace propane two years ago.”

He also spent a year traveling to observe projects using dairy and swine manure to produce gas. He went to the states of North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Washington and Oregon. Those are dissimilar operations because the waste products are different. With help from the Chemical Engineering Department at Mississippi State University, research revealed that poultry litter is three times more potent than swine and dairy litter. Logan also hired Dr. Richard Vetter, an engineer in Illinois who’s done a lot of research with dairy and swine, to assist.

The State of Mississippi’s Land, Water and Timber Resource Board funded 51% of the project and Logan funded the remainder. “It’s expensive because of the research,” he said.

“This is a research model. I have a full chemistry lab and generating plant. It will be streamlined for other poultry farms.”

Additionally, Logan was awarded three grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy. These grants will fund a solar system — the largest in the Southeast — that will heat water for the project; a water pumping system; research on converting the gas to class A liquid fertilizer; and training for other farmers. An education center to train other poultry farmers has already been built at Brinson Farms by H&L Farm Services, a company owned by Logan that builds poultry plants.

Per the agreement, the state will apply for patents. Logan will receive a tax credit for the next 10 years of 1.8¢ per kilowatt hours of energy the farm produces. He will also heat the chicken houses and produce all his own electricity. The surplus electricity will be sold to the Southwest Mississippi Power Association.

“I feel it will solve a major problem by converting litter to methane gas and using it for electricity and heat and marketing a commercial product,” he said.

Natural resources abundant

Patrick Sullivan, director of market development with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), says projects of this kind will help the farm economy. Representatives from the agency have traveled around the country looking at what others are doing to see if it applies to Mississippi.

“The potential is here because we have a lot of natural resources and biomass materials,” he said. “It’s environmentally responsible, too. Commissioner (Lester) Spell has a vision for this type of thing and several people in the department are working on it.”

He said there are a few small-scale dairy and swine demonstration projects producing energy for their farms. There are also some ethanol and biodeisel experimental projects that are 90% based on corn. Even the heaters at the Ag Museum in Jackson burn shelled corn.

Larry Pearson, an employee of MSU’s Dial Lab, also operates Mississippi Ethanol in Winona with six people involved. The project is conducting research with wood wastes to find out what the elements are and Pearson feels it’s progressing. He says it could be a couple of years before the research project can produce enough energy to impact anyone.

“The feasibility depends on the numbers,” he said. “On the front end — gassification — it’s looking good. We’re just about to the point of doing testing.”

The goal is to develop the technology that can use these wastes for power at sawmills and wood industry plants. “We want to get it out there for companies to use, not just in this area although we’re from here, but for anyone to use,” he said.

The project to take a biomass through a gasification process to synthetic gas and then through a biological process to ethanol involves two stages and two processes.

Technical assistance available

The Mississippi Technology Alliance provides technical assistance to alternative fuel projects. Sumesh Arora, project development engineer, says the economy is the driving force behind the research.

“The up-front costs for alternative fuel research are expensive, but it’s not after it’s running,” he said. “The payback period is seven or eight years before the investment will pay. Then, there are big savings. We’re working to get the payback period down to five years.”

He says there’s a lot of interest in the state for finding fuel alternatives. The Mississippi Biomass Council recently hosted a Southern Bioproducts Conference with 125 attendees.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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