Can Southeast Beets Be New Biofuel Source?

Georgia team is studying the production of winter-grown, energy beets for biofuel usage.

Published on: Mar 25, 2013

By Clint Thompson

Beets are producing "sweet" results with researchers at the University of Georgia, and could soon become an alternative winter crop for the Southeast and be used to produce alternative energy.

Timothy Grey, an associate professor on the Tifton campus of UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and Ted Webster, research agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, are collaborating on a project with Betaseed Inc. The research team is studying the production of winter-grown, energy beets for biofuel usage.

If successful, this will provide farmers across the Southeast with a winter crop to grow in rotation with their summer commodities. The use of energy beets as a biofuel crop would also create an alternative to cellulosic biofuel production and would not displace the current summer crop production.

Can Southeast Beets Be New Biofuel Source?
Can Southeast Beets Be New Biofuel Source?

"One of the things that this industry is looking at is potentially using a source of sugar to make ethanol that doesn't involve food processing," Grey said. "You would be taking what is classified as an energy beet and directly using that as a source of ethanol production versus having to go through the conversion process and using corn, which is much more valuable in other areas."

The project is entering its second harvest season. The Georgia research team produced more than the average beet yield in the Midwest, which is about 30-35 tons, Webster said.

"Our best harvest was in the middle of June 2012. We were looking at about 57 tons to the acre," said Webster, who evaluated seven different harvest times from April through August. "I think if we were able to manipulate that planting date, going after corn and getting in during September, we'll be able to maximize our yields earlier in the season so it won't affect transitioning into cotton and peanuts."

Grey and Webster are trying to avoid planting behind those popular commodities because of their late harvest times. If energy beets are planted earlier in the autumn season, they could be harvested earlier the following year. Planting after corn is also beneficial because it allows beet farmers to use left-over nitrogen remaining in the soil. The beets' deep tap roots mine soil nitrates from soil depths of 8 feet.

"It scavenges the remaining nitrogen in the soil that was put out on the corn and puts it to use," Webster said.

By growing energy beets during the winter, Grey and Webster can make better use of the resources at their disposal. They are taking advantage of the mild climate in south Georgia, which offers very little freezing temperatures during the winter months. If successful, planting energy beet could provide farmers a winter commodity to grow in rotation with their summer crops.

"I think that this system makes sense for our growers; it allows them to take advantage of a time of year where we don't have anything in the ground and provides them with another potential cash crop," Webster said.

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