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BAE partners with DOT to grow bioenergy crops on highway rights-of-way

If you’ve driven North Carolina highways this year and spotted a blazing yellow plot of canola or a clutch of crimson safflowers along the roadside, you might have been looking at more than just pretty flowers.

On several plots throughout the state, these crops, along with sunflowers, are being grown for energy.

In partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, scientists from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) are participating in the national FreeWays to Fuel initiative, growing biomass crops off highway rights-of-way and converting them to biodiesel to fuel DOT vehicles.

In fact, N.C. State is among only a handful of universities in the United States producing biofuels from crops grown along the roadside. And the work taking place here has captured the attention of national and local media outlets.

Under the leadership of Dr. Matt Veal, BAE assistant professor, the College planted four canola crops in fall 2009, in Duplin, Wake, Rutherford and Surry counties. After those crops were harvested in spring 2010, sunflowers were planted in Rutherford and Surry counties, and safflowers in Wake and Duplin Counties. Those harvests took place in fall 2010.

Veal says the program’s first year was a success. A total of 108 gallons of oil were processed from 2,900 pounds of plot-grown canola, with the highest canola yields coming from Rutherford and Surry counties (data for the fall harvests of sunflower and safflower were not available at press time).

Canola seed pods are harvested along a highway.

“Canola is a really viable, economically advantageous crop, and it produces good oil,” Veal says. “The sunflowers performed marginally, but we think that was due to the fact that a significant part of the growing season was very dry.”

Ted Sherrod, engineer in the DOT Roadside Environmental Unit, worked closely with Veal and his team on the project, along with DOT engineer Ben DeWit, who played a big role in cultivating the partnership between the two organizations.

“Overall, the program was a success,” says Sherrod, who earned CALS bachelor’s (1982) and master’s (2007) degrees from the BAE Department. “One of the canola plots exceeded national yield averages, and two other sites had very good yields.”
Sherrod describes the N.C. State team as “first-class scientists and engineers.”
“Matt and [BAE] graduate student Michelle Mayer were super partners on the project,” he says. “They both bring engineering and science attributes to a challenging real-world problem as we search for ‘power plants’ as alternative fuels.”

All biomass processing and conversion took place in Weaver Labs, on the N.C. State campus. The biodiesel then was picked up by the state DOT and blended for fleet use.

The cost to produce the crops was very similar to agriculture production, Veal says, but the advantages are numerous. These crops make use of land that is otherwise unsuitable for growing food crops. The program also helps the state DOT meet new requirements for renewable fuel usage.

And it helps the state save money in a number of ways, from lowering mowing costs to reducing the need to import biodiesel from other states.

The program also presents the potential to make money: Canola tillage costs range from $171 per 10-foot strip to $206 per 10-foot strip, and the biodiesel and meal value for that same amount of crop is $355. And the program supports efforts to beautify the state’s highway system.

Canola for 2011 harvest is in the ground, Veal says, and he’s already getting to work on ways to expand the program.
“Power line rights-of-way are the next areas we’re looking at. We’re also exploring ways to make production better and to scale it up to make it more of an enterprise. I’d really like to get more entities, especially farmers, involved,” he says.

“I really believe this program holds great promise for the future.”

—Suzanne Stanard