Carbondale nonprofit planting seeds for biofuel future | SteamboatToday.com

Carbondale nonprofit planting seeds for biofuel future

Business examines new agriculture opportunity

Janet Urquhart/The Aspen Times

— A plot of tilled earth outside of Carbondale could sprout the future of agriculture in the West, not to mention an environmentally friendly fuel source.

So far, though, it looks like dirt with a few weeds poking through.

The plot at Flying Dog Ranch off Prince Creek Road has been carefully planted with the seeds of a variety of low-maintenance perennial grasses — four mixes of plants such as switchgrass, orchardgrass, timothy, wheatgrass, tall fescue and others — in a scheme that's being duplicated in Rifle and Fruita. Cacti are also part of the experiment in Fruita.

This summer is the first of five growing seasons for a project spearheaded by the Carbondale-based Flux Farm Foundation. The nonprofit is part of the Western Colorado Carbon Neu­­tral Bioenergy Consortium, also involving Colorado State University, Colorado Mountain College and the city of Rifle.

For the project, CSU faculty selected crop varieties not typically considered for bioenergy production. They are, however, ones that could do well in the region's marginal soils, said Morgan Williams, Flux Farm executive director.

Simply put, the four growing sites will be carefully controlled to determine which plant mixes do best with varying degrees of irrigation and fertilizer.

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"We're really trying to minimize irrigation requirements, fertilizer requirements and tractor time in the field because each of those requires resources," Williams said.

The idea is to produce a healthy crop of plant material that can be converted to butanol as inexpensively as possible.

The U.S. Department of Ag­­­riculture also is involved, monitoring how much carbon is absorbed by the plants and transferred into the soil. The hope is a carbon-neutral fuel — one that doesn't add to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has been identified as a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, but the Flux Farm Foundation's emphasis isn't on what's in the atmosphere. Rather, it's about what's in the ground — hopefully a new, viable agricultural opportunity in the West, Williams said.

The foundation was founded in 2006 by Williams and former Woody Creek resident George Stranahan, now of Carbondale. Williams was irrigating Stranahan's property in Woody Creek (also called Flying Dog Ranch) when the two got to talking about what could be done with agriculture and energy, said Williams, who grew up in Carbondale and attended Colorado Rocky Mountain School. He holds degrees in biology and chemistry.

The biomass project will send the crop to CMC's Western Garfield campus in Rifle where processing equipment has been built to convert it into butanol and train students in its Integrative Energy Technology Program simultaneously.

Williams anticipates experiments in blending gasoline and butanol, though vehicles can run on straight butanol without any modification to their engines, he said.

The city of Rifle has agreed to use the fuel in its vehicle fleet.