From left, Andrew Hashimoto, CTAHR professor/principal investigator; Lee Jakeway, director of energy development at Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar; Richard Ogoshi, CTAHR research agronomist, and Tim Eggeman, chief technology officer of ZeaChem, Inc. inspecting energy crop trials at Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar.
“I need to stop at the grass station and put some grass in my car.” No, that’s not a typo—it’s a hint of the greener future in store once CTAHR’s latest partnership with other universities, governmental agencies, and private businesses yields the information on biofuels that it promises. The College recently was awarded a $6 million grant from USDA for a collaboration with researchers from Oregon State and Washington State University and private companies ZeaChem, Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, and Hawai‘i BioEnergy LLC to evaluate the sustainability of commercial biorefineries in Hawai‘i.
The research concentrates on fast-growing grasses that can thrive in areas where they won’t compete with food crops. Sugarcane and its relative energycane, banagrass, sweet sorghum, and a Napiergrass–pearl millet cross are being researched to determine which species, growing conditions, and maturity at harvest offer the highest sustainable yields.
But it’s not just the grasses; it’s a whole system that’s being evaluated. Project partners are looking into harvesting—whether commercial harvesters can be modified for the job or whether new machinery needs to be built; storage needs; and multiple processes, like juicing, hydrolyzing, fermenting, and distilling. End products are drop-in biofuels and value-added co-products like animal feed and soil amendments. And all this for a cost that is projected to be comparable with future crude oil prices.
The project gets more timely all the time. Hawai‘i presently meets more than 90% of its energy requirements through the use of imported fossil fuels and has the nation’s highest energy costs. The U.S. Navy, which is of great economic importance to the state, has also unveiled its Great Green Fleet Initiative, which aims to use 50% renewable energy by 2020 for its ships and ground transport, thus creating a very important market for locally produced biofuels. In fact, the Navy and the US Departments of Agriculture and Energy have announced plans to build several regional biorefineries, and Hawai‘i is one of the sites being considered. And it will be CTAHR and its partners that show them how it’s done.