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Posted on  

June 27, 2003

Chaff recommended as ethanol ingredient

By Sean Pratt
Saskatoon newsroom

An Agriculture Canada official suggests investors in the ethanol business need to separate the wheat from the chaff when lining up raw inputs for their plants.

Business plans for proposed ethanol plants tend to focus on grain and straw, overlooking a more reliable source of raw material.

Mark Stumborg, head of Agriculture Canada's research centre in Swift Current, Sask., said chaff is always readily available and has less competitive pressure than other potential inputs in the ethanol process.

The ethanol project that has generated the most interest in Canada is Iogen Corp.'s $37 million demonstration plant in Ottawa, which converts 50 tonnes of straw a week into fermentable sugar.

Iogen is eyeing the Prairies as a potential home for its first commercial scale ethanol plant, largely because of the abundance of straw in the region.

The problem is that straw production is dependent on moisture levels. Under growing conditions like last year, there can be almost no straw available for industrial purposes.

Chaff, on the other hand, is always around. In 1988, during a severe drought in southwestern Saskatchewan, farmers still produced an abundance of chaff.

That's why Stumborg is encouraging Iogen to incorporate chaff into its business plan.

"If you set it up on straw alone, you've got a huge risk because there may be a year where you can't even run the plant," he said.

"If you've got chaff, your catchment area may have to increase but it won't be nearly as bad as if you were straw alone."

An ethanol plant that partially relied on chaff would provide a welcome source of additional revenue for area farmers. Even if there was no financial remuneration, zero-till farmers would still benefit by clearing residue off their fields.

"Our studies actually indicated it almost paid you to remove it even if you just collected it, sat it beside the side of the field and threw a match at it," Stumborg said.

But there are still some "substantial issues" to overcome before chaff could be seriously considered as an ethanol ingredient.

Seeds are the primary target for conventional harvest systems and residue collection is an afterthought. Nearly 40 percent of chaff usually ends up back on the field.

Farmers who want to retain more of the crop residue can use systems like the McLeod Harvester or Redekop Manufacturing's chaff collection system, but those are costly alternatives.

Until a cheaper chaff collection system is developed, straw and grain will likely remain the primary targets of ethanol plants.

To assist bioproduct firms like Iogen in deciding where to locate their straw-based production facilities, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration has developed a geographic information system-based map that shows how much straw is available on the Prairies.

"The straw isn't as available as they thought," Stumborg said.

"There isn't the quantity that they thought they would be able to access."

That's one of the reasons Iogen is looking at building one or two straw-based ethanol plants on the Prairies rather than the dozen or so proposed in 2000.



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