Ticking Time Bomb

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A University of Windsor (USA) professor has received a $525,000 grant to turn grass to gas.Jerald Lalman, an associate civil and environmental engineering professor, is turning plants such as prairie switchgrass and leftover wheat and corn stalks into hydrogen.

“We have shown it can be done in the lab scale,” he said Friday.It’s on a small scale, but in five to 10 years, Lalman says, we could see hydrogen from these plants being used to create hydrogen in fuel cells to run cars.“Trying to utilize all of the crop to make products can really … do a lot of things for many Canadian farmers,” Lalman said.Bernard Nelson, president of the Essex County Federation of Agriculture, said it’s a great idea.But he said leftover stalks such as corn stubble do have value.

The value of harvesting the leftover stalks would have to be more than their value as fertilizer when they are left in the field, he said.“We’re 100 per cent behind the research,” Nelson said, praising the effort to find other uses for crops.

Naturalist Paul Pratt of the Ojibway Nature Centre said more switchgrass being grown would be fine by him. Switchgrass grows to more than five feet tall and is one of the dominant grasses in a tall-grass prairie. It is one of the grasses in the fenced Ojibway prairie provincial nature reserve and it is also growing next to the centre’s wildflower garden.

Pratt said it’s a long-lived perennial that can grow in poor soil, reduce erosion and provide habitat.The $525,000 grant came from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Lalman will lead a team of five researchers, including two others at the University of Windsor: Dan Heath of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and civil and environmental engineering Prof. Nihar Biswas.

The researchers need the sugars from the plants. Lalman expects a multitude of crops being used, including residue from crushed sugar cane. To get the sugars, researchers use steam explosions, like pressure cooking, and dilute acid hydrolysis that breaks down the plants similar to enzymes in the human body breaking down food during digestion.Then they add vegetable oil to trick the sugars into making hydrogen. So far, hydrogen from the lab experiments isn’t being stored because it’s explosive, but after three years of lab work, Lalman expects to be able to move to the pilot project stage.


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