Could hybrid poplar trees that grow wild along the roads of Virginia be the next great alternative fuel source? Ken Moss, owner of Piedmont Bioproducts LLC in Gretna, plans to find out. His company soon will begin testing a number of perennial grasses, shrubs and trees to determine which will yield the most tons per acre and convert into the most gallons of biocrude oil per ton.
The company will look at varieties of hybrid poplar, willow shrub and Paulownia trees, while also scrutinizing warm-season grasses, such as switchgrass and miscanthus. Eventually, he says, the company will test other potential sources as well, including the paradise tree.
Moss explains that, unlike ethanol, the biosources he’s testing don’t compete with the food supply. He expects the plants to provide an additional income source for Virginia farmers because they can be grown on marginal farm lands. In addition, they have to be planted only once and are considered carbon dioxide neutral. Any greenhouse gases emitted during harvesting are compensated 15 times over by the carbon-dioxide burning photosynthesis process that takes place during the plants’ life cycle. “We’re making use of those items that otherwise have no real use, and we can take a lot of underutilized farm land and get it back into production,” Moss says.
In July, Piedmont Bioproducts, with funding from the Virginia Tobacco Commission, will kick off the pilot stage of its recently completed refinery. That phase, Moss says, will test the concept of producing biocrude or “green coal” from wood chips. Next year, with funding from the Center for Innovative Technology, the refinery will move into a precommercial phase and ramp up production.
The biocrude produced initially will be sold as a commercial and residential heating source. “We’re doing this all in steps and stages because it’s very important, and we don’t want to make any major mistakes,” Moss says.
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