Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Agriculture, Biofuels, Blog, Farms, Front Page, Iowa, Soil, Sustainability

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Susan and Francis Thicke with one of their grass-fed, organic dairy cows. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Francis Thicke is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. He is also an accomplished scientist and an award-winning farmer. Thicke’s list of credentials is impressive, including selection by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation as a Policy Fellow in their Food and Society program, work as the National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service, and a current seat on the board of directors of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Most recently, Francis and Susan Thicke were selected as recipients of the 2009 Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture. The couple will be honored at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture on December 5 at the 9th Annual Iowa Organic Conference. Together, they own and operate Radiance Dairy near Fairfield, Iowa.

Thicke (pronounced TICKee) is also a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Thicke to learn about his vision for improving agriculture in Iowa. Not surprisingly, given his background and his interest in sustainability, Thicke has a lot of ideas that we thought you would find interesting — regardless where you live. Blue Planet Green Living endorses Thicke’s candidacy for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture.

This is the first in a series of conversations with Francis Thicke. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

Organic dairy farmer and scientist, Francis Thicke, is a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. Photo: Courtesy Francis Thicke

BPGL: Why did you decide to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture?

THICKE: I see a lot of challenges coming down the road for agriculture in Iowa, as well as opportunities. I think we need new vision and new leadership to meet those challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

One challenge is escalating energy costs. We saw last year how oil prices went through the roof. And that meant that input costs for agriculture went through the roof. Of course, oil prices came back down again, and the input prices are coming down.

But oil economists tell us we’re going to see this roller coaster of spikes and valleys in oil prices continue. And they’re going to keep trending upward.

That makes it difficult for an agriculture that’s so dependent on oil-based inputs. When oil prices are dropping, but farm input prices have not yet dropped, you get a mismatch of peaks and valleys, and it could be a real disaster for agriculture.

The bottom line is that we need to get off this treadmill of oil. We need to look for ways we can become more efficient in our agriculture and power our farms with locally and sustainably produced energy.

BPGL: What suggestions do you have for doing that?

THICKE: I have several. One thing is that agriculture is producing corn for ethanol that’s used in cars that run on the highway. That is not a very efficient use of our biofuels.

The average mileage for passenger vehicles, if you include SUVs along with cars, is about 22 miles per gallon. So, we’re putting ethanol in these very inefficient vehicles, and we’re not powering agriculture with our biofuels.

Just to see the irony of it, if we could increase our fuel mileage by only two miles per gallon on average, from 22 to 24 mpg, we would save more fuel than all the ethanol we produce in this country, which takes about one-third of the U.S. corn crop. We’re not using our biofuels energy-producing capacity very efficiently.

I would like to see future biofuels development be twofold: One, it uses perennial crops, which are more sustainable, more resilient cropping systems. And two, we target biofuels to power agriculture.

BPGL: Describe how you would use perennial crops for biofuel. I assume you’re talking about using a different process than is used to make ethanol with corn.

Pyrolysis — A New-Old Technology

THICKE: There are some promising new technologies on the horizon that are being developed now. One is called pyrolysis. It’s not a new process; it’s been around for years, and was used to make fuels during World War II.

Pyrolysis is a process of heating biomass at high temperature in the absence of oxygen. The result is gaseous and liquid fuels, which can be converted to gasoline and diesel fuel. Now there is some research showing that this can be done on a smaller scale than the huge-scale ethanol plants. It can be done on a local, cooperative scale, or even on a farm scale. If we develop the technology of pyrolysis to work on a local, or farm scale, we could use biofuels to power agriculture, making farms more energy self-sufficient, and keeping more profit on farms and in rural communities.

BPGL: Is pyrolysis more efficient than the process used to produce ethanol now?

THICKE: Pyrolysis produces more biofuel per unit of biomass than ethanol does. It’s a more efficient biofuel-production process.

BPGL: What are you cooking in pyrolysis?

Theoretically, any biomass could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

Perennial prairie plants produce a lot of biomass and could be used to make biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: julia Wasson

THICKE: Cellulosic materials. You could cook corn, but any organic material will work. What I’m suggesting is that we grow perennial crops, prairie plants, for example, or miscanthus, which is a perennial plant that produces a tremendous amount of biomass. It’s been looked at a lot in university research.

Miscanthus requires very little input, such as fertilizer, and it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. It’s a minimal-input cropping system. The advantage of using perennial crops for biofuels is that perennials do a much better job of protecting the soil from erosion and from the loss of nutrients — like nitrate and phosphate — to water resources, where they become pollutants.

BPGL: So there’s no burning of the cellulosic material. You’re just heating the plants and turning them into fuel.

THICKE: Yes, but at high temperature. It’s not really burning per se, it’s transforming. The first stage of normal combustion turns solid or liquid fuels into gases through super heating. Then the hot gases ignite and burn in the presence of oxygen. The byproduct of normal combustion is carbon dioxide and water. That first stage of combustion is a form of pyrolysis.

When using pyrolysis to make biofuels, the environment remains depleted of oxygen. Combustion does not go to completion, so the end products are combustible gases and liquids. The liquid product of pyrolysis is called bio oil, which is somewhat like crude oil. It depends upon how you control the conditions during pyrolysis whether you get more gaseous or liquid fuels. These fuels can be transformed into gasoline or diesel fuel.

BPGL: Who is doing the research on this?

THICKE: Iowa State University has a project, but there are projects all over the country. Google “pyrolysis,” and you’ll see that there’s a lot going on.

BPGL: So, the energy it takes to create the fuel comes from the same fuel that you’re producing?

THICKE: Yes. An exothermic reaction is one that gives off heat when you burn something. But pyrolysis is slightly endothermic; it takes a certain amount of heat input to make the reaction occur. So you would have to burn some of the fuel — a small portion — to keep the high temperature.

Increasing Efficiency of Biofuels

BPGL: If it takes energy to heat the cellulosic material, is it that efficient?

THICKE: Yes. I’ve asked scientists working on pyrolysis about this. They said that the overall net energy is more per unit of biomass than you get with ethanol production. If you take a biomass material — even corn — and use pyrolysis, there should be a slightly more efficient gain of energy than if you made ethanol from it, including the input of heat.

So, first, we need to become more efficient and sustainable in biomass crop production by using perennial cropping systems, which are resilient and help protect soil and water quality. Second, if it can be done on a small scale — and a research project at Iowa State University indicates that it can — then you can do it at a farm scale. And that means, you could produce these fuels right on the farm. There is some research going on that indicates you could maybe even make it into diesel and gasoline on a farm scale.

BPGL: Can you cook any type of carbon-base material? Any type of grasses? It doesn’t have to have a sugar base?

THICKE: No, it doesn’t. Carbohydrates, lignins — any biomass, any reduced-carbon compound like that will work.

BPGL: Such as wood, trees, things like that?

Wood could be used to create biofuels through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

Wood can be transformed into biofuel through pyrolysis. Photo: Joe Hennager

THICKE: Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, a few months ago, there was a story in the Des Moines Register about a man who had a pickup truck with a small pyrolysis unit on the back. He was throwing wood in there, and he was driving on the highway, powering his pickup truck with pyrolysis. He could go 80 mph down the highway, he said.

It’s a demonstration, and I certainly wouldn’t think it would be an efficient way to fuel cars. But, it does show that you can do it on a small scale. If you do it on a farm scale, the neat thing is that you could power your farm with biofuels.

With corn-based ethanol production, farmers produce corn, which is a commodity, for which they get paid wholesale prices. To power their farms, they have to buy fuel at retail prices. If they could produce fuel on their farms, not only could they power their farms, but they could sell any excess fuel they produced at nearer to retail price. So this would be good rural economic development, in my mind.

Corn-based ethanol production has brought some economic development to Iowa. But, corn is not a resilient crop on the landscape. It leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion and the loss of fertilizer nutrients, which can become pollutants to water resources.

Also, when large corn-ethanol plants are owned by outside interests instead of being owned locally, agricultural wealth is extracted from rural communities. For example, some of the ethanol plants that went bankrupt last year were bought up by an out-of-state, multinational oil-refinery company. That puts the same industry that retails fuel to farmers in a position of extracting the profits of value-added biofuel production. So, you can see the potential economic advantage for farmers if they could produce biofuels on the farm to power their farms. They would retain much more wealth in their own rural communities.

BPGL: Is the pyrolysis technology ready for farmers to use on their land today?

THICKE: This is in the research and technology development stage. I think one of the Iowa projects was funded by the Iowa Power Fund. It’s something that universities should be picking up and working hard at.

What I advocate for is that we make a concerted effort to try to develop these kinds of technologies. It would help advance both rural economic development and sustainable farming systems.

BPGL: There are so many things that are carbon based that could be burned. Everything from animal feces to secondary crops.

THICKE: A big one would be garbage waste. A lot of the garbage waste — like wood and cardboard and things like that — could be used. Even grass clippings, tree leaves… It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Biochar – A Promising Soil Amendment

THICKE: A third byproduct of pyrolysis, besides the gaseous and liquid fuels, is called biochar, which is similar to charcoal. Biochar functions like humus when added to soil. It has properties that help soils hold nutrients, and it increases the water-holding capacity of soils. It also can be used for virtually anything charcoal is used for — a whole variety of uses, industrially.

Biochar has a lot of promise for use as a soil amendment, which is something that you would use to improve the soil. Normally, people think of soil amendments as fertilizers or lime, or anything that you add to the soil to improve it. Biochar doesn’t break down easily, so it persists for a long time in the soil, and it increases soils’ beneficial properties.

There are some ancient soils in Brazil, called terra preta. People have wondered over the centuries why these soils were so productive. They are dark, black soils that are highly productive with very little input; they never seem to stop producing.

Geologists and soil scientists are speculating that many centuries ago, some culture had a way of doing something similar to pyrolysis; they made a type of biochar, and put it into the soil. The biochar made terra preta soils tremendously productive. So we don’t even know the extent biochar would be useful as a soil amendment, but it’s going to be exciting to see what potential it has.

Preventing Erosion with Cover Crops

BPGL: Earlier you mentioned multiple challenges to agriculture. What is another one?

THICKE: Another challenge coming down the road is weather extremes due to climate change. Climatologists are telling us that’s what we are going to be seeing, when we talk about global warming or climate change. The way it will affect agriculture is that we’re going to be seeing extremes like droughts and flooding, high-intensity weather events. Iowa’s current cropping systems are not resilient enough to be able to handle that.

Last year, with the hard rainfalls and flooding, nearly 10 percent of Iowa’s cropland suffered soil erosion rates of 20 ton per acre. Two-thirds of Iowa’s land surface is covered in corn and soybeans. So our cropping systems are not very resilient, and they don’t absorb rainfall as well as perennial cropping systems would.

Soil Erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

Soil erosion is a major problem for Iowa farmlands. Photo: Joe Hennager

BPGL: Is there a way at the state level to promote changing the monoculture that we see in Iowa farming, so we can get more biodiversity in our crops?

THICKE: Yes, there are things we can do to make our landscape more biodiverse and resilient. There are several ways we can approach this. One — and we can do this through programs at the state level — is to try to get more cover crops on the land. For example, after corn and soybean crops are harvested in the fall, the land is not well protected from soil erosion and nutrient leaching. If a cover crop, like rye or hairy vetch, were planted to grow during late fall, winter and early spring, soil erosion and nutrient leaching would be reduced, which would help reduce hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s one thing we can do.

BPGL: Are cover crops something that farmers can sell, as an added source of income?

THICKE: With cover crops, you normally don’t harvest and sell them. They are intended to be returned to the soil, to build the soil. They are planted to protect the soil and to absorb nutrients after harvesting corn or beans. In the spring, before planting annual crops again, cover crops are returned to the soil. As the cover crop decomposes in the soil during the summer, it provide nutrients for the growing summer crop. The added residue on the soil from the cover crop also helps protect the soil from erosion.

The cover crop could be killed in the spring either with tillage or through no-till farming methods [without plowing the plants under the soil] using a herbicide like Roundup. That would be a popular way conventional farmers would do it.

BPGL: Would you use that method — no-till, with Roundup?

THICKE: As an organic farmer, I wouldn’t do that. But that’s a common practice. It would be good for protecting the soil, and conventional farmers are going to be using the Roundup herbicide anyway.

However, there is new research being done now on no-till organic farming, which looks very promising.  In no-till organic farming you use a cover crop, like rye, for the purpose of suppressing weed growth, in addition to the reasons we talked about earlier. The rye crop is killed in the spring with the use of a special tool called a roller/crimper, which is a roller with sharp fins on it that knocks down, crimps and kills the rye plants.

BPGL: I would think even conventional farmers would like that idea.

THICKE: That’s a good point. They might. They would need special equipment, but this is something that’s being developed. There’s some research being done at Iowa State University on no-till organic farming. It’s been developed out east, in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It’s a coming thing that could be done by conventional farmers.

BPGL: It seems like there’s a job opportunity for someone to have a crimper that they take from farm to farm.

THICKE: Right, it could be. However, a roller/crimper would not be a real expensive piece of equipment, compared to the other field equipment farmers use. This is something that needs to be demonstrated on a wide scale so that farmers can see it work. They are not going to want to do it unless they see it working.

End of Part 1 in a continuing conversation with Francis Thicke.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion (Top of Page)

Part 2: Francis Thicke on Renewable Energy

Part 3: Francis Thicke on Small Farms and Local Foods

Part 4: Francis Thicke on Big Ag, CAFOs, and the Future

My 5: Francis Thicke, Organic Dairy Farmer, Political Candidate


8 Responses to “Francis Thicke on Biofuels, Biodiversity, and Erosion”

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