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MFA Oil biomass update

Written by Jared Wilmes on .

MFA Oil Company has expanded into the emerging biomass renewable energy market by teaming up with Aloterra Energy LLC in organizing and investing in MFA Oil Biomass. The goal of MFA Oil Biomass is to create a vertically integrated renewable energy supply chain by combining the knowledge of energy markets with the agricultural knowledge of its members.

The renewable energy crop chosen for development by MFA Oil Biomass is Miscanthus giganteus, which is produced by local farmers in three project areas—northeast Arkansas, southwest Missouri and mid-Missouri.

About Miscanthus giganteus
After researching numerous energy crops, MFA Oil Biomass found miscanthus to be the strongest on several fronts. It is a warm-season perennial grass that is non-invasive, drought tolerant once established, pest resistant and needs less fertilizer than food crops. In addition, the plant has a vast root system that provides a large amount of carbon and organic matter sequestration in the soil.

Although miscanthus is a low-input crop, with lower requirements for fertilizers, pesticides and water than most food crops, the first year is the most critical for getting the plant established. Perennial grasses like Johnsongrass are major threats to young miscanthus. Aggressive weed management is required to ensure its successful start. Application of pre-emergent and follow-up herbicide is recommended. In addition, brush-hogging miscanthus in its first fall creates a mulching effect to help block other grasses and weeds. If producers are aggressive in weed control in year one of establishment, the canopying effect of miscanthus effectively eliminates weed and grass threats thereafter.

Miscanthus is not harvested in year one, but is left alone or cut and left in the field. It reaches full maturity in three years, when it will grow to eight to 12 feet tall. The plant will yield 10 to 12 tons per acre, significantly more than other energy crops.

Market Development
Because miscanthus takes three seasons to reach maturity and full yield, MFA Oil Biomass is taking the opportunity to define and secure known and potential markets for when its current 13,500 acres expand to an eventual 75,000 acres, enough to supply a steady feedstock in a variety of biomass applications:

Energy
Miscanthus can be burned in utility company boilers to produce energy, thereby reducing the need for coal and reducing harmful emissions. In October 2012, MFA Oil Biomass successfully test-burned miscanthus at the city power plant in Columbia, Mo., where a renewable energy ordinance was passed requiring 15 percent of retail energy sales to come from renewable energy sources by 2023. A test burn also is scheduled next spring at the new University of Missouri-Columbia fluidized bed boiler, which is specifically designed to burn biomass products.

Heat
Miscanthus energy pellets can be burned in pellet stoves and furnaces. Using the pellets, poultry and swine confinement producers, along with greenhouse operators, can trim one of their largest expenses. In addition to reducing heating costs, the pellets are environmentally friendly—a carbon-neutral heat source with lower emissions than petroleum-based products.
Ag Fuel Energy Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of MFA Oil Company, markets multi-fuel furnaces for burning the pellets, which are currently marketed to small-to-intermediate users in northern Arkansas, southern Missouri and the eastern United States.

Animal bedding
MFA Oil Biomass has worked with Cargill and Tyson to test the use of miscanthus as alternative bedding in turkey grow-out and brooder barns. Results have been positive. Initial findings reveal that miscanthus provides a cost-effective alternative to traditional bedding. It is highly absorbent, providing a dry environment in which to promote poultry health. Also, miscanthus does not host viruses and mold to the extent that traditional bedding does, which helps limit illness among poultry.

Biofuels
Compelled by government mandates, both domestically and internationally, the use of renewable cellulosic fuel is posed to grow significantly in the next few years. In addition, low-carbon fuel mandates like California’s position miscanthus to be a leading crop to supply biorefinery for advanced biofuels.

MFA Oil Biomass has completed the first step in the process to convert miscanthus to advanced fuels with a thorough evaluation of technologies. We also have begun the process of identifying a specific site and working with leading technology providers on a licensing agreement.

Jared Wilmes is director of biomass operations at MFA Oil Biomass.  Learn more at MFAoil.com.

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