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Carbondale nonprofit plants seeds for biofuel future

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesMorgan Williams, executive director of the Carbondale-based Flux Farm Foundation, hopes to identify a more productive mix of grass than what's currently growing around him in the meadows of a ranch near Carbondale. The goal is a crop that can be efficiently converted into biofuel, opening Western lands to a new agricultural opportunity.
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CARBONDALE, Colorado – From a plot of tilled earth outside of Carbondale could sprout the future of agriculture in the West, not to mention an environmentally friendly fuel source.

So far, though, it looks like dirt with a few weeds poking through.

The plot at Flying Dog Ranch off Prince Creek Road has been carefully planted with the seeds of a variety of low-maintenance perennial grasses – four mixes of plants like switchgrass, orchardgrass, timothy, wheatgrass, tall fescue and others – in a scheme that’s being duplicated in Rifle and Fruita. Cacti are also part of the experiment in Fruita.



This summer is the first of five growing seasons for a project spearheaded by the Carbondale-based Flux Farm Foundation. The nonprofit is part of the Western Colorado Carbon Neutral Bioenergy Consortium, also involving Colorado State University, Colorado Mountain College and the city of Rifle.

For the project, CSU faculty selected crop varieties not typically considered for bioenergy production. They are, however, ones that could do well in the region’s marginal soils, said Morgan Williams, Flux Farm executive director.



Simply put, the four growing sites will be carefully controlled to determine which plant mixes do best with varying degrees of irrigation and fertilizer.

“We’re really trying to minimize irrigation requirements, fertilizer requirements and tractor time in the field because each of those requires resources,” Williams said.

The idea is to produce a healthy crop of plant material that can be converted to butanol as inexpensively as possible.



The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also involved, monitoring how much carbon is absorbed by the plants and transferred into the soil. The hope is a carbon-neutral fuel – one that doesn’t add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has been identified as a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, but the Flux Farm Foundation’s emphasis isn’t on what’s in the atmosphere. Rather, it’s about what’s in the ground – hopefully a new, viable agricultural opportunity in the West, Williams said.

The foundation was founded in 2006 by Williams and former Woody Creek resident George Stranahan, now of Carbondale. Williams was irrigating Stranahan’s property in Woody Creek (also called Flying Dog Ranch) when the two got to talking about what could be done with agriculture and energy, said Williams, who grew up in Carbondale and attended Colorado Rocky Mountain School. He holds degrees in biology and chemistry.

The biomass project will send the crop to CMC’s Western Garfield campus in Rifle, where processing equipment has been built to convert it into butanol and train students in its Integrative Energy Technology Program simultaneously.

Williams anticipates experiments in blending gasoline and butanol, though vehicles can run on straight butanol without any modification to their engines, he said.

The city of Rifle has agreed to use the fuel in its vehicle fleet. The project is of interest to Rifle both because it presents an opportunity for area farmers and ranchers to diversify their incomes, and because it could lead to job creation through a new industry centered on turning the biomass into biofuel, said Charlie Stevens, the city’s utilities director.

Because the cost of trucking the grass a long distance would likely make growing it uneconomical, Williams envisions small, regional production facilities, and possibly mobile ones.

“Potentially, you could process it on site,” he said.

Flux Farm Foundation has received a $50,000 research grant from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and $25,000 in matching funds to start up the growing trials in Carbondale, Rifle and Fruita. That money will pay for the first two years, but a $1 million USDA grant is being sought to fund research, conversion and education for five years, he said.

Growing plants that can be converted into fuel is nothing new – ethanol from corn is an example, but that effort uses valuable farmland better suited to food production, according to Williams.

“It certainly can be done – you can grow your own fuel,” he said.

The question is, can places like Colorado grow perennial grasses on land with marginal soil, variable precipitation and lingering cold, and then turn it into fuel that can be profitably pumped into a gas tank.

Williams intends to find out.

janet@aspentimes.com


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