Algal biofuel grows in a lab at Montana State University.

Algal biofuel grows in a lab at Montana State University.
MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

A significant fraction of energy research at MSU is focused on biofuels. Biofuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol, are derived from grains, seeds and other biological matter. Theoretically, burning biofuels rather than fossil fuels contributes less carbon to the atmosphere because the plants used to produce the biofuel absorbed carbon from the air during their lives. MSU's research aims at making biofuels more efficient and cost effective from both the industrial and agricultural points of view.

Researchers at MSU's Central Agricultural Research Center are evaluating various straws, hays and silages for their potential to produce ethanol. The most common biofuel in the U.S. is made from ethanol, and currently most ethanol is made from corn. But corn alone cannot meet the country's fuel needs, and using it puts pressure on food prices. So scientists are busy looking for other sources. MSU researchers want to use the waste parts of crops to maximize the state's ethanol while finding the most effective enzymes to break them down into the sugars needed to ferment ethanol.

Other agricultural research at MSU is looking into the biofuel potential of barley, camelina and grasses. Researchers are evaluating camelina biodiesel in agricultural equipment to see how it compares to other forms of biodiesel. Scientists are also developing biolubricants using camelina oil, including waxes that could be less expensive and more widely available than other industrial waxes.

Finding alternative uses for wheat and barley is important to Montana farmers. MSU researchers are looking for ways to enhance the value of these grains by identifying which varieties have the best starch extraction and ethanol yield, a field that has been explored in depth for corn but has yet to be tapped for wheat and barley. This research into enhanced ethanol wheat and barley may allow ethanol plants to operate more efficiently and economically.

MSU scientists are also looking for alternatives to burning solid wood like logs and wood chips. Researchers are studying ways to use agricultural crop residues to create biobased pellets that can be burned in residential stoves and commercial boilers. These pellets come in a number of different forms and even combine biobased materials with coal dust and other fossil fuel residues to boost the efficiently of the pellets. These "waste-derived engineered fuels" could take advantage of waste materials that are difficult to recycle and currently find their way into Montana landfills.

Finally, researchers at MSU are studying how oils extracted from algae can be turned into biodiesel. This research focuses on getting algae to produce more oil and finding the most efficient ways to grow them for harvesting. The benefits of using algae are that they can be grown in places where other biofuel crops cannot be grown, such as desert states or in areas with water that isn't useable for agriculture. MSU is currently working with Utah State University to explore algae as a source of biofuel.

MSU Web sites

  • Agricultural Marketing Policy Center's Issue Papers — Papers 16 and 19, specifically, were written by MSU agricultural economists Joel Schumacher and Vince Smith on the subject of biodiesel subsidies and oilseed markets. Both subjects have implications for the way oilseed crops are grown in Montana.
  • Central Agricultural Research Center — Located near Moccasin, Mont., the Central Agricultural Research Center is home to scientists looking into hay, straw and silage as alternative sources of ethanol
  • MSU Biobased Institute — The MSU Biobased Institute finds ways to improve the profitability of Montana agriculture by enhancing production and developing new applications and products that are suitable for Montana.
  • Western Agricultural Research Center — The mission of the Western Agricultural Research Center, located in Corvallis, Mont., is to apply research to the problems facing agricultural production. Scientists at this experiment station are looking into flax seeds and their oil as a potential source of biofuel.

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