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A penchant for pellets

Lawrence Pierce
Chris Postalwait (right) and Jason Rogers of West Virginia State University's Agricultural Research Station run a batch of biofuel pellets from crushed switchgrass using a pellet mill on loan from Bridgemont Community and Technical College's Sustainability Institute.
Lawrence Pierce Perched atop a bale of switchgrass, these bags contain switchgrass pellets (left) crushed switchgrass (center) and distillers' dried grains.

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- A program taking shape through a collaboration between Bridgemont Community and Technical College, West Virginia State University and the Capitol Conservation District will demonstrate how long-stem grasses grown on marginal farmland can be turned into fuel for heating homes and businesses.

Last week, a small pellet mill owned by Bridgemont's Sustainability Institute, on loan to West Virginia State's agricultural research station during a building renovation at Bridgemont's Montgomery campus, converted a tub full of switchgrass into half-inch pellets similar in size and shape to those used in pellet stoves.

Switchgrass, a prairie grass species native to West Virginia and much of the rest of North America, can grow to a height beyond six feet. This batch was raised at the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Appalachian Plant Materials Center at Alderson.

Before WVSU research station employees Chris Postalwait and Jason Rogers fed the dried grass into the pellet mill, it was run through the research station's hammer mill to crush it into a near powder. Since switchgrass lacks the lignin polymer content of wood or woody-stemmed fuel plants, a quantity of distillers' dried grains, or DDG -- a byproduct of the brewing industry -- is added to make the pellets more durable.

When making pellets from different forms of biomass, "You've got to be patient," said Postalwait. "The humidity needs to be right, and you may have to mix in something like DDG" to get pellets to hold and keep their shape.

WVSU and Bridgemont are developing a memorandum of understanding on working together in experiments to produce fuel pellets from switchgrass, bluestem grass, miscanthus grass and other biomass plants.

According to WVSU Research Station Manager John Bombardiere, the goal is to develop "a collaborative effort with Bridgemont and people in the community to see what works, and then get that information out to the public."

Testing to determine ash content and Btu ratings for pellets made from various biomass fuels could become part of that collaboration.

"If enough farmers get interested in growing these grasses in large enough quantities," Sally Shepherd of the Capitol Conservation District said, "maybe we could get a Department of Energy grant to set up a larger regional pellet mill."

Biomass pellets have been used across the country to run boilers in office buildings and schools, and to generate electricity, she said.

Shepherd, who announced her candidacy for state agriculture commissioner last week, is one of three Capitol Conservation District farmers growing stands of miscanthus on marginal land -- land not suitable for crops, hay or pasture. A fourth test plot is growing on a reclaimed surface mine.

At Shepherd's Sissonville farm, the perennial grass grows up to 12 feet tall before becoming dormant in October. While miscanthus sheds its leaves in the fall, its tall cane-like stalks remain standing, ready to harvest as biofuel after they dry.

"I can see people growing it in areas that they're now brush-hogging several times a year," Shepherd said. Farmers could use haymaking equipment to harvest and bale the biomass grasses for transport to pellet plants, she said.

The WVSU Research Station has planted a small stand of miscanthus to provide rootstock for growers interested in planting it.

Wood pellets, made with sawdust from sawmills, are the primary source of fuel for pellet stoves. In recent years, though, several wood pellet shortages have occurred, due to a downturn in sawmill production in response to the housing market collapse and an increasing European demand for American pellets.

"Pellets are an economical heat source, once the stove is paid for," said Kelly Jo Drey, director of the Bridgemont Sustainability Institute. Demonstrating a commercial application for biomass pellets, she said, is in keeping with Bridgemont's mission to promote sustainability and create green jobs.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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