WSU to join biofuel project

PROSSER -- The Washington State University Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems in Prosser will be part of a four-year $6 million biofuel project led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.

Qin Zhang, the Prosser center's director, and WSU researchers will design the harvester for sustainable biofuel feedstock for Hawaii.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the project to help Hawaii increase its energy security, according to a WSU news release.

Hawaii has the highest energy costs in the United States because of energy consumption for transportation, mostly due to jet fuel use by commercial airlines and military installations.

The Prosser center will lead the $709,000 mechanical harvesting system portion of the study. Zhang and his team will modify sugarcane harvesters to harvest tropical grasses.

Zhang said they must find a way to improve the harvesting technology for energy cane, a relative of sugar cane.

Energy cane is a perennial akin to asparagus and can be harvested for 10 to 15 years until it needs to be replanted, the primary difference between energy cane and sugar cane, Zhang said.

It will be efficient and economic to modify the existing harvester to work for energy cane, he said. Prosser will stage design and performance tests of the cutter, but the ultimate field tests will take place in Hawaii because energy cane isn't grown in the Mid-Columbia, Zhang said.

"By filling the gap in engineering solutions for feedstock production, we're helping to make WSU one of the leading institutes in biofuel research in the world," he said in a news release.

WSU researchers also will be working with Oregon State University, ZeaChem Inc. of Lakewood, Colo., a developer of biorefineries, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co. of Maui -- Hawaii's largest raw sugar provider -- and Hawai'i BioEnergy LLC of Honolulu, one of Hawaiian Electric Co.'s renewable-energy suppliers.