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Plant research fuels N.S. biomass industry


Like many people who want to grow stuff in the Maritimes these days, Kevin Vessey has been frustrated by the recent spate of wet weather.

“If it would ever stop raining and if the sun would come out for more than one day, we will get these things planted,” the plant physiologist said in a presentation at the Atlantic Biocon conference recently held at Saint Mary’s University, where Vessey is a professor and researcher. “We were supposed to start this three weeks ago now.”

But unlike most planters whose goal is to grow food, Vessey’s crops — known as feedstocks — would be refined into biofuels like the ethanol derived from corn. He’s experimenting with two types of grasses, switchgrass and miscanthus, as well as hybrid poplar and willow at five sites across the province.

He and his research team are looking for answers to two main questions: Can these feedstocks thrive on Nova Scotia farmland that would otherwise go untilled and if so, are there growers and bio-refiners out there willing to take a chance on this industry?

On the first point of farmland that isn’t being worked, usually because of relatively poor quality soil, Vessey said there’s a lot of it in Nova Scotia, about 100,000 hectares.

“There’s no point in taking land you can grow corn on and start growing these biomass crops because the returns, the value is much lower,” he said in an interview after his presentation at the Biocon conference, which gathered biomass researchers and industry representatives from across the world.

“If the land is good enough for growing food, you probably should be growing food on it. This is to really define crops that will grow on poor quality soil on land that’s been underutilized or been abandoned but it’s agriculturally oriented land.”

Vessey’s five growing sites range from Inverness County in Cape Breton to Yarmouth County. His team monitors growth patterns and other data in the different soil conditions to determine what feedstocks would work best in Nova Scotia.

But Nova Scotia farmers interested in experimenting with feedstocks now would be pretty safe with switchgrass, he said. It’s one of the most commonly grown feedstocks in the United States and Europe.

“We have enough data that you can produce switchgrass (in Nova Scotia). It’s not the highest yield but we know it can be grown consistently and consistent yield.”

While there isn’t a huge market yet in the Maritimes for feedstocks, there are farms in the province that use anaerobic digesters, which break down biological materials into a methane-like fuel.

There could be a lot of untapped economic potential in those barren farmlands once we figure out what feedstocks will work best, Vessey said. It’s possible that a big bio-refining company would be interested in setting up shop here if there’s a guaranteed supply of stock.

It’s also another way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned.

“This is why we have a net increase in CO2 in the atmosphere,” he said.

“We take carbon that was sequestered a long time ago over huge epochs of time and releasing it very quickly into the atmosphere for a net increase. That does not happen with biofuels. If you drive a car on bioethanol, yes the ethanol that you’re burning in that internal combustion engine is putting CO2 into the atmosphere, but that CO2 was taken out of the atmosphere last week, last month.”

And the fast-growing grasses and trees he’s experimenting with actually increases the amount of carbon in the soil, he added.

“A lot of electricity is still from burning coal” in Nova Scotia, said Vessey, whose project recently received $1.2 million from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s AgriScience program and the Nova Scotia Innovation Hub Fund.

“I won’t drive an electric car here because I’m really driving in something that is largely fuelled by coal. There’s no single solution to our alternative energy sources. It’s going to be a whole breadbasket of solutions: Wind, solar, hydro, tidal, biomass.”

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