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Koehlmoos reaps awards from cellulosic ethanol research

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 12/09/2013 1:39 PM

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PAULLINA — Eric Koehlmoos' research on cellulosic ethanol led to national champion honors at the National FFA Science Fair last month in Louisville.

The 17-year-old junior at South O'Brien High School finished first in Division 2, which includes individual high school FFA members in power, structural and technical systems.

His project compared cellulosic ethanol production between wheat straw, prairie cordgrass and switchgrass.

"Last year, I did a project where I compared both grasses to corn and found that both grasses produced more ethanol than corn," Koehlmoos said. "This year, I wanted to see if wheat straw would produce enough ethanol for an ethanol plant to come and build in an area. Then, you could convert you marginal land areas to wheat, switchgrass and prairie cordgrass since both grasses grow better on marginal areas."

He found that switchgrass and prairie cordgrass still are better options for producing ethanol.

"But wheat straw does produce enough ethanol to have a plant come and build and produce enough ethanol to make ends meet," Koehlmoos said. "Then, on your high salinity, poorly drained, highly erodible soils, you can put your switchgrass and prairie cordgrass and still produce a sizable amount of ethanol along with getting ethanol from wheat straw on your productive lands."

He got wheat straw from his cousin in South Dakota.

"It would not be economically feasible in northwest Iowa because land is selling for $18,500 per acre, but you go out to central South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and this would work really well because land is cheaper, and these grasses grow well there," Koehlmoos said.

He exhibited a display in Louisville about his project and took part in an interview with two judges.

Koehlmoos learned about making ethanol and gets all his enzymes and equipment from Little Sioux Corn Processors at Marcus. He also talked to Arvid Boe, the prairie cordgrass and switchgrass breeder at South Dakota State University.

His award for winning included $350.

"You get to be up in stage in front of a bunch of people and on RFD-TV," Koehlmoos said. "Hearing your name announced as a national champion was a pretty sweet deal."

Koehlmoos started working on science fair projects as a freshman. His science teacher, Kevin Brasser, requires all freshmen to complete a project.

"Some of us continue our sophomore, junior and senior years because there are a lot of scholarships and other opportunities," Koehlmoos said.

This year, he's looking at how calcium hydroxide, or hydrated lime, affects ethanol production and the nutrient value of distillers grains.

He participated in the State Science Fair of Iowa last year and won a $2,500 scholarship from the Iowa Energy Center and a trip to the International Science Fair in Houston — where he won $200.

Koehlmoos has been in FFA since he was a freshman. His supervised agricultural experience project consists of his science fair projects and a 90 head ewe flock.

Koehlmoos was a member of South O'Brien FFA's state champion soils judging team that competed in Oklahoma City when he was a freshman. As a sophomore, he competed at the National Convention on his chapter's meats judging team.

Eric Kumm, his FFA advisor and ag instructor is a mentor.

His parents, Doug and Lisa, and Brasser, his science teacher, also are mentors.