Marshall, Minn. – Often the key to finding a good answer is asking the right question: Could a syrupy ethanol coproduct be used as fertilizer? What is the energy value of Minnesota crops and residues? Are there better ways to stabilize processed meat products?
AURI has initiated the search for answers to these and other questions in setting its annual research agenda.
Besides helping start-up and existing businesses and cooperatives work on their ventures, AURI staff annually initiate their own projects that dive into potential new uses for Minnesota ag products. “These initiatives are industry or commodity-wide,” says AURI scientist Rose Patzer, who helps coordinate organizational initiatives. “They hopefully will have broad impact. No specific client has been identified, but these initiatives recognize emerging trends.”
AURI initiatives are often the result of staff simply recognizing opportunity. AURI scientist Alan Doering noticed that solubles or syrup left over from ethanol production handled like liquid manure. An analysis of the thick liquid showed intriguing levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. With commercial fertilizer prices rising, Doering wanted to find out if the syrup could be a viable fertilizer alternative.
“A lot of people have the equipment to handle liquid manure, so the solubles could be handled the same way,” Doering says. “It could be a good situation for farmers to have access to another fertilizer source and for ethanol plants to find a potential market for one of their coproducts.”
The solubles have been applied to corn test plots at a University of Minnesota research center in Waseca. Harvest yield data, tissue samples and other tests will be conducted later this fall to see if the syrup has fertilizer potential.
“Whether it works as a fertilizer or not, the potential for it to be successful was too good for us not to take a look,” Doering adds.
Other initiatives result from collaborative relationships. Every year AURI meets with its key partners —commodity and grower groups and farm organizations — to review their research priorities.
“We move to pair up our initiatives with their priorities,” Patzer says. “But it’s not enough to propose initiatives. … The idea may be great, but if (the research) is not completed and information is not brought back to our partners, then we’re not doing our job.” One collaborative initiative is assessing commercial anti-gelling agents that can be used in biodiesel during winter. Biodiesel gelling is a common problem in cold-weather states.
Some initiatives that require extensive research are collaboratively funded. Others are just first steps AURI undertakes alone.
“Many of the unfunded initiatives focus on the diligence needed to determine whether a larger, funded project will be worth the investment of time and funding,” Patzer says. If a project is deemed unworthy of further investment, “We may be able to save some group money in the long run.”
“Initiatives are important because of the possibility of industry-wide impact,” says Max Norris, AURI director of projects and technology. “Collaborative initiatives, in particular, ensure we are meeting the needs of Minnesota agriculture.”