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America puts biogas at the heart of rural recovery


Biogas production is to be at the heart of a $10 million study into how to boost ‘struggling’ rural economies while protecting the environment.

The new federal grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture will allow a research team led by Iowa State University, Penn State and Roeslein Alternative Energy to develop new cheaper and more efficient methods of turning biomass and manure into fuel.

To be known as C-CHANGE – the Consortium for Cultivating Human and Natural reGenerative Enterprise – the five-year programme will seek to create new value chains on US farms, with emphasis on the generation of renewable natural gas (RNG).

Recoupling farming and energy systems

The project director is Lisa Schulte Moore (pictured above), a professor of natural resource ecology and management and associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State.

Schulte Moore said the consortium will innovate methods for farmers to make more efficient use of resources while maintaining current value chains, resulting in an agricultural economy that’s both more profitable and environmentally sound.

“We recognise the benefits of current production systems but also that there’s a lot of inefficiency in how we use land, sunlight, nutrients and water,” Schulte Moore said. “We also realise that farmers and rural communities are struggling. We know we can address inefficiencies by adding perennials and recoupling crop, livestock and energy systems. Research is needed to ensure these combinations are also profitable.”

Schulte Moore said some areas of farm fields — particularly uneven terrain that is especially susceptible to erosion, flood planes and turnrows (field borders) — can yield poor or negative profits for corn and soybean producers. Switching those acres out of corn and soybeans to perennial grasses could save farmers money and protect the environment,” she said.

A preliminary study of Pennsylvania State identified 800,000 acres of such land. Planting perennial grasses (herbal leys) would deliver a harvest of around six million tonnes, with a value of nearly $600m, at the market price of $100 a tonne.

“Agriculture is always going to be vital to rural economies,” Schulte Moore said. “The C-CHANGE team is trying to meet current societal demands while returning more value to people and the land.”

Making AD cheaper to adopt and easier to use

The project centres on anaerobic digestion and plant optimisation. Researchers will test variables such as feedstock mixture, pre-treatment, digester temperature and water content to make the process as practical as possible in a drive to develop new ways for farmers to produce RNG that could be used as an energy source both on and off farms.

“For more than 50 years, anaerobic digestion has been promoted as a way to both improve environmental management of livestock manures and to produce renewable energy,” said Tom Richard, director of Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “But adoption of anaerobic digestion has been limited by high capital costs and management complexity, which has slowed the advance of this industry and the underlying technology.

“We will be working with farmers and other industrial partners to update anaerobic digestion for the 21st century, applying the principles of process intensification, automation and economies of scale to reduce costs, simplify operations and expand digester feedstocks beyond manure to incorporate perennial grasses and winter crops into their operations as a source of biomass for the digesters.”

Research will help determine additional markets for the other products of anaerobic digestion, such as digestate, to provide a more stable source of nutrients than directly applying manure as a fertiliser, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions and less nutrients running into waterways.

Health and environment benefits could save $billions

C-CHANGE commercial partner Roeslein Alternative Energy (RAE) is already pioneering work in the area of the grant. Founder Rudi Roeslein has spent a decade restoring prairie grasses and natural habitats across his 2500 acres of farmland in Missouri and since 2012 RAE has been working with Smithfield Foods to adjust practices on their hog farms that have resulted in greater efficiencies, improved environmental outcomes and a profitable new renewable natural gas enterprise.

Company founder Rudi Roeslein said energy production from biogas could spark significant job creation in the alternative energy and agriculture sectors while also providing new habitat for threatened wildlife, including pollinators.

“With this grant, we hope to demonstrate that land unprofitable for annual crops could be used for renewable energy production from native grasses and forbs through the anaerobic digestion process,” Roeslein said. “Ecological services from this perennial biomass crop would prevent flooding, reduce nutrients running into our streams and rivers that could save hundreds of billions of taxpayer money on water treatment facilities while improving the health of our future generations.”

The consortium also will engage producers, commodity groups and companies to see how receptive farmers and businesses are to implement management practices and other knowledge emerging from experiments. Adopting these innovative approaches could be facilitated through changes in agricultural policies.

In addition to Iowa State, Penn State, and Roeslein Alternative Energy, other institutions involved with the new C-CHANGE grant include FDCE of New Albany, Ohio; the USDA Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, and 33 partner organisations.

Picture of Lisa Schulte Moore; Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University

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