Energy Crops On Display at Penn State

Posted: September 15, 2009

During the last few years we have conducted numerous trials at Penn State to assess the potential of various energy crops.
A mobile pelletizer on display at the Central PA Biomass Workshop converts a roundbale of switchgrass into pellets that can be used as a heating fuel. (Photo by Dan Ciolkosz)

A mobile pelletizer on display at the Central PA Biomass Workshop converts a roundbale of switchgrass into pellets that can be used as a heating fuel. (Photo by Dan Ciolkosz)

This year, we are growing several crops to evaluate their suitability for Pennsylvania and to provide a demonstration of possibilities for farmers in the area. This year's energy crops demo is located just north of the University Park campus off Fox Hollow Road. Crops that are being grown include Switchgrass, Atlantic Coastal Panic Grass, Sunflower, Canola, Camelina, Sorghum-Sudangrass, and Safflower. A brochure is available at the demonstration site, as well as signs at each of the fields. The crop demo was unveiled at the recent "Central PA Biomass Workshop" held on campus. Visitors are welcome during daylight hours, but are asked to walk along the edges of the fields, and to be careful of any farm operations in the area.

Our colleagues at the USDA-ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management lab, including Dr. Paul Adler, are doing a lot of work on switchgrass and harvesting strategies to maximize its use for wildlife and also improve its potential as a biofuel. Current utilization strategies are focused on developing the crop for direct combustion and various techniques are being proposed for densification. A prototype mobile pelletizing unit has been developed in conjunction with several other collaborators that possibly could help growers add value to their switchgrass, creating a domestic pelletized heating fuel from a round bale of switchgrass.

The switchgrass field is in its second year of growth, and is in an area where our Farm Operations group has avoided any use of herbicides, instead trying to control weeds through mowing. The location of the field, adjacent to a drinking water well, is an excellent example of a site where a perennial grass grown for biofuel feedstock without the addition of any fertilizer or chemicals may be an ideal choice.

We also have trials with annual crops like barley and sorghum ongoing. Barley can be an economical winter cover crop substitute for corn in a corn stove and requires less input than corn to produce. Forage Sorghum and Sorghum-Sudangrass can also produce lots of biomass that could be pelletized for a heat application as well. These can also be used in a crop rotation to help smother weeds for a subsequent crop.

The oil crops in the demo are being evaluated for their potential as a biodiesel feedstock. Penn State's biodiesel program plans to grow the cooking oil that is used on campus, then collect the used oil and transform it into biodiesel. The fuel will then be used in the university's fleet of diesel vehicles.

Our canola studies have shown that winter canola can be grown effectively throughout much of the state except in some of the shorter season areas where it tends to winterkill. Yields of 50 to 70 bushels per acre have been achieved. One key management practice is to plant in mid-September to get adequate growth to avoid winterkill. Spring canola has done well also, except in the south-central part of the state. Spring canola is more sensitive to heat and drought stress and tends to yield less and shatter under those conditions. In central and northern parts of the state we have achieved yields of 40-50 bushels per acre with spring canola. Sunflowers are also a potential oilseed crop. In smaller plantings they can be prone to animal damage from birds, deer and groundhogs, but nevertheless they can yield well and produce a good amount of oil. We feel they may also have potential as a double crop following wheat or barley in some parts of the state.

You can find more information about Biofuels and other Renewable and Alternative Energy topics at the college's energy extension website.

Contact Information

Daniel Ciolkosz, P.E.
  • Assistant Professor and Research Associate
Phone: 814-863-3484
Gregory W. Roth
  • Professor of Agronomy
Phone: 814-863-1018