Agriculture

Brewer to turn spent grains into energy

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: November 19, 2011   View Article

The U.S. government is giving a nearly half-million dollar grant to a beer maker in Alaska that aims to install a first-of-its-kind boiler that is fueled entirely by spent grain.

All brewers are confronted with mountains of spent grains — mostly barley. Many get rid of the waste by routing it to farmers for animal feed, a noble service that can help grow a steak to accompany your fine ale.

Insuring against extreme weather

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: October 13, 2011   View Article

A high-tech crop insurance company aims to make farming profitable — and itself — by writing policies that offer protection against floods, frosts, droughts and other bouts of crop-damaging weather that are on the rise.

Whether the increase in these weather events are due to human-caused climate change, the company said, is not their business, but the events are trending upwards and they have the technology to analyze the risk they pose to individual farmers and price polices accordingly.

Eternal youth: A fix for biofuels

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: October 11, 2011   View Article

The push to wean the biofuel industry off its heavy diet of corn may, ironically, involve transferring a corn gene to non-corn plants such as switch grass, suggests a new study.

The gene, called Corngrass 1, essentially locks the switch grass into a state of perpetual pre-adolescence, explained George Chuck, a plant molecular geneticist at the University of California at Berkeley.

“One of the consequences of staying juvenile forever is they don’t flower, they don’t become sexually mature,” he said.

How we’ll eat the same with climate change

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: October 7, 2011   View Article

Want a varied, abundant, and healthy diet in the decades ahead? Then be glad that researchers are beginning to pinpoint the genes that allow plants to thrive and adapt to different climates.

That’s because our agricultural system is largely adapted to perform in today’s climate, which despite some warmer and cooler swings over the past 10,000 years or so, has been relatively stable.

That’s unlikely to be the case in the future, meaning we will need to adapt our agricultural system to a changing climate if we aim to maintain our current eating and drinking habits.

How seawater can quench global thirst

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: August 9, 2011   View Article

New membrane technologies could more efficiently turn billions of gallons of seawater full of salt, decomposed fish, and other bits of unappetizing organic matter into thirst-quenching liquid for people and crops, according to experts in desalination technology.

The problem is that these membrane technologies don’t yet exist in the right form to efficiently turn seawater into freshwater, they said in a review article aimed at spurring lab-level research with molecular models.

Desalination plants use membranes in a process called reverse osmosis. Seawater is forced through the membrane to filter out the salt in seawater to help make it drinkable and available for irrigation. The process requires a minimum amount of energy to do.

Inca Empire built on corn … and poop

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 23, 2011   View Article

The seeds of the Inca Empire were planted about 2,700 years ago when a warm spell combined with piles of llama excrement allowed maize agriculture to take root high up in the South American Andes, according to a new study.

“They were constructing fields and weeding them. And probably trading took off, made possible by llama caravans transporting goods, such as maize, coca leaves, salt and a ceremonial product called cinnabar,” Alex Chepstow-Lusty of the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima told me Sunday in an email.

The finding is inferred by a record of pollen and mites in a core of mud taken from a small lake located at about 11,000 feet up in the Andes surrounded by agricultural terraces and next to an ancient trading route that connected tropical forest and mountain communities.

Is algae biofuel too thirsty?

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: April 14, 2011   View Article

Biofuel produced from algae, essentially pond scum, has long titillated green energy boosters as a potential big time player in the U.S. renewable fuels portfolio. Now, a-first-of-its-kind look at industrial-scale freshwater farming of algae suggests it could indeed make a sizeable dent in U.S. oil imports, but drain water resources.

Specifically, the U.S. could produce enough of the algae-derived fuel to eliminate 48 percent of the fuel it currently imports for transportation needs, according to researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. But doing so would require 5.5 percent of the land area in the lower 48 states and consume about three times the water currently used to irrigate crops.

“The water use is significant,” Mark Wigmosta, a hydrologist at the lab who led the study, told me today.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach