Agricultural byproducts harvested to cultivate a greener commonwealth

Researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are developing technologies that could use agricultural residue for energy, for better forms of fertilizer, and perhaps to help some regional economies in the commonwealth.


Foster Agblevor (right) and a student in a research lab Foster Agblevor (right) and a student work in a biological systems engineering research laboratory.

A project in the Shenandoah Valley is seeking to convert poultry litter — the mixture of sawdust and droppings under the cages — to several useful products while solving a waste disposal problem.

When the poultry litter is heated to a high temperature, several reactions take place, explains Foster A. Agblevor, professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. The vapor that results can be condensed into a bio-oil fuel that can be used in diesel engines. Another part of the process forms a substance that can be used to make an adhesive.

The final residue becomes a slow-release fertilizer, which allows better control of nutrient release and is about 10 times less polluting.


Foster Agblevor's pyrolysis unit Foster Agblevor's pyrolysis unit (above) converts poultry litter into biofuel and other by-products. The unit is able to be transported from farm to farm.

Virginia Tech faculty members also are planning an energy-related project in Southside Virginia. Researchers in the horticulture department are looking at poplar and switchgrass, a summer perennial grass, to identify genetic markers for increased cell wall, or biomass, production.

The result would be more energy and less ash from poplar and switchgrass fuels.

“Switchgrass could be propagated from genetically modified plants and poplar is easy to clone,” said Barry Flinn, director of the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources in Danville.

Once plants with the desired traits are identified, institute scientists would develop the most efficient tissue culture and transformation technologies. Southside Virginia farmers would then have new short-term and long-term high-value products to grow.

In another project that would be helpful to Southside, Agblevor is developing processes to extract specific chemicals from the residue of 100,000 acres of cotton grown in Virginia, residue that also causes disposal problems.

“Our work shows a manufacturing process for extracting two products — ethanol, a fuel in automobiles, and xylitol, a sugar — simultaneously from the cotton residue," Agblevor said. "It is possible that a manufacturing company operating in Southside could produce both ethanol and xylitol products.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lori Greiner at (540) 231-5863.

Plastic from feathers

    Barone holding a heaping handful of cleaned, chopped chicken feathers

This eco-friendly solution to a growing waste problem could lead to big savings for both the industry and the consumer.

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