A Farm Equipment Special Report: What Will Agriculture Look Like in 2021?

"Biofuels could create the greatest bonanza of demand for farm equipment ever," says Cole Gustafson, North Dakota State Univ. biofuels economist.

The boom in equipment needs, he says, would be driven in part by the sheer volume of additional crops and acreage that must be planted and harvested to support biofuel facilities.

For example, Gustafson is working on an energy beet project — using sugar beets to produce biofuel — in North Dakota. Each proposed 20-million-gallon plant would require 30,000 acres of energy beets in new production regions. It would require at least 50 harvesters to manage those acres, he estimates.

"If you start thinking about those numbers on the national level, the amount of equipment needed adds up fast," Gustafson says.

The need will also build demand for specialized equipment. Existing equipment won't work properly for harvest of cellulosic feedstocks for three reasons, Gustafson says.

The crops are different and the strategies for harvesting them will need to be different, too. Miscanthus, an energy grass, is very dense and grows to 15 feet tall. There may be some equipment able to handle it, Gustafson says, but it won't do it very efficiently.

"In the next 10 years, we will need new machines designed for the purpose of harvesting biofuel feedstocks," he says. "And no machine will work nationwide. Each region will produce biofuel feedstocks that fit their environment and will need specialized equipment to support them."

Sheer capacity of biofuel feedstock crops will be overwhelming. The high volume, bulky crops will need to be managed differently.

"We have a history of harvesting corn, but that's for grain, not the entire plant," Gustafson explains. "We're contemplating harvesting volumes that are 10 times larger than what we've harvested in the past."

Efficiency will be needed to drive biofuel usage and harvest.

"Reduction of greenhouse gasses and carbon emissions is driving the development of biofuels on a global scale," Gustafson says. "People are concerned about carbon emissions, fuel use and lifecycle analysis. For farmers to be able to capitalize on premiums for biofuel feedstocks, the machines they're using must be more fuel efficient and leave a smaller carbon footprint."

The emphasis on the opening statement of this article, however, needs to be on the word "could." Biofuels could create a farm equipment bonanza, but there are a few roadblocks.

New biofuels, such as energy beets, could create a bonanza of demand for new farm equipment.
New biofuels, such as energy beets, could create a bonanza of demand for new farm equipment.

There's federal legislation in place to help develop the biofuel industry, but it's at the mercy of EPA implementation.

"The last 2 years, EPA has waived the renewable fuel mandates put forth by federal legislation," Gustafson says. "We have federal legislation without any teeth. As a result, cellulosic demand is slow right now."

Uncertainty is rampant in the industry. No one knows how technology will evolve. While energy crops may very well be the future of biofuels, there is also the chance that development may be based on urban waste products or forests. It's a wait-and-see game.

Enzyme developers are in a race right now to strike biofuel gold, Gustafson says. Enzymes are the building blocks of biofuel development. They're what breaks down the cellulose into biofuels. Plants are made up of two types of sugars, C5 and C6 sugars, he explains.

"We're close to developing an enzyme that will breakdown C6 sugars, but we haven't looked at C5 yet. When we master them both we'll be able to break down almost the entire plant into biofuels," Gustafson says.

The enzyme developer that gets there first, he says, will have a gold mine that will pay off. And getting more biofuel from each plant would reduce the tonnage needed and ease the stress biofuel production has put on the corn market.

"I think they'll break C5 in the next 10 years," Gustafson says.

Biobased Lubricants & Greases

The future is bright for biobased lubricants, says Lou Honary, professor and director of the Univ. of Northern Iowa National Ag-Based Lubricants Center.

"To date the UNI-NABL Center has been involved in the development and successful commercialization of over 30 biobased lubricants and grease products," Honary says. "We are working on second-generation hydraulic oils and greases along with new engine oil technology that overcomes the lack of needed oxidation stability."

Enhancements of oilseeds, research and development in industrial crops, and the industry's efforts in developing new performance-enhancing additives promise parity in cost and performance of biobased products to their petroleum counterparts, Honary says.

"Biobased products of the future will be based on chemical modification of crop oils so that regardless of the source, the modified oil would present consistent and reliable performance," he says. "Genetically enhanced crops will continue to provide base oils for simple applications where high stability and cold temperature are not required."

Between biofuels and biobased lubricants, Honary says the potential is there to reduce our reliance on foreign petroleum products.

"Due to our efficient and well-developed farming technologies, we can reduce the need for imported petroleum, diversify our energy resources and increase our economic viability," Honary says.

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