DAILY Photo by Clyde Stancil|
Roger Felkins with gin waste at the Hillsboro Gin. Scientists are working on uses for the waste product from the cotton ginning process, including potting soil, cattle feed and ethanol. Felkins says that when properly aged, it's great as a garden supplement: "If it sits for two to three years, it's wonderful. Miracle-Gro has nothing on it."
Cotton-pickin' waste no more?
Gin trash possibilities:
fertilizer, feed, fuel
By Clyde L. Stancil
DAILY Staff Writer
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2443
HILLSBORO — Roger Felkins has trash piled sky-high and he doesn't know what to do with much of it.
Motorists driving by Hillsboro Gin can see the dirt-like trash along the ground at the beginning of ginning season, and watch the piles grow as the season progresses.
Gin operators call it cotton gin trash: the ground remnant of ginning that separates limbs, stalks and leaves from the white fluff. The byproduct blows onto a conveyor belt outside the gin and falls to the ground, creating a mountain of dark-brown debris.
What ginners perceive as trash, however, could turn out to be a food source for cattle and potted plants and already is food for thought for a local chemical engineer.
"It's a nuisance," said Felkins, Hillsboro Gin manager.
A nuisance? Then why did Felkins stash a smaller mountain behind the big one for personal use two years ago?
"If it sits for two to three years, it's wonderful," Felkins explains.
"Miracle-Gro has nothing on it. Every farmer around this area comes to get it for their gardens. It's like fine wine, it gets better with age."
Auburn University researchers know the value of aged gin trash. It is one of the many waste products that professor Jeff Sibley hopes to turn into potting soil. In its raw state, gin trash is too light and dry to use as potting soil. After composting, it doesn't fare much better, becoming too wet and heavy to use alone.
"But we find that when we mix it with other organic matter, it works very well in a composted state," Sibley said.
Gardeners and nursery owners would become frustrated with the multitude of weeds in raw gin trash. Sibley said composting destroys all of them, except pigweed.
"Generally, across the Tennessee Valley, that would be the only weed that would persist following composting," he said
Cattle farmers aren't exactly leading their herds to graze on gin trash piles, but animal scientists at Alabama A&M and Auburn universities have discovered that it has nutritional value.
Alabama A&M assistant professor Gamel M. Abd-Rahim is working on a project that will test how well cattle digest a flaked corn-based diet supplemented with gin trash.
"The only problem with gin trash is we have to develop something called coated gin trash, using starch," he said. "And the reason is because it is not efficient unless you coat it with starch. We will make it easy for farmers and producers to handle it and feed it to the cattle."
Cattle like it and the time of year gin operators produce gin trash fits into the scheme.
"Farmers harvest cotton in the fall through early winter and the winter time is when you feed cows," said Darrell Rankins, Extension System animal scientist at Auburn. "It's available when cows need it most."
Gin trash and hay are equal in nutritional value as low-to-medium quality feed, and cannot be the only meal a cow eats.
For it to remain an economical choice for farmers, their farms would have to be close to a gin and the process to make it palatable, such as adding starch, cannot cause the price to rise higher than hay prices.
If plant and animal scientists can't find a way to make gin trash into an economically viable product, Decatur chemical engineer and entrepreneur Brian Baer said he has found a way to turn it into ethanol.
He is looking for financial backers to help him build a plant that would turn gin trash into ethanol in less than 72 hours. Consumers could either mix it with gasoline, or use it alone in their automobiles. While others have studied making ethanol from agriculture products such as corn, sugar cane, beets and wood chips, Baer said his idea is unique.
"I'm looking at the cotton-gin trash because I'm right here in the South where I have just about an unlimited supply of raw material," he said.
The 512 gins in the Southeast each produce an average of 2,500 tons of gin trash each year, for an estimated 1.28 million tons annually. Baer said that is enough material to allow him to produce an average of 60 million gallons of ethanol each year.
"The beauty of this is when you separate the (chemical compound) you can use that as combustion fuel, so you can produce enough energy not only to run the plant, but you can sell it back to (the Tennessee Valley Authority)," Baer said. "By law they have to buy it. Not only does your plant run on the energy you produce, but you can turn it into a revenue stream by selling it back to TVA to produce energy for the grid."
Unlike corn and beets, there is no competition for gin trash because humans don't consume it.
"You have to have some crops that are grown for (human consumption) so you can't use 100 percent of the corn supply for ethanol," Baer said. "If you're a company that's producing bio fuel from corn, you're competing with a company that produces cream corn and all the things we like to eat."
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