The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 month ago

Auburn University gets $3 million grant to increase innovative conservation practices

(Auburn University/Flickr)

AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn University College of Agriculture research and extension faculty will be using a $3 million grant to help forge a future for Alabama agriculture by encouraging the use of innovative conservation practices among the state’s row crop farmers.

The grant comes from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials (On-Farm Trials), a new component of the Conservation Innovation Grants first authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Auburn’s $3 million grant is the largest to a single entity of the more than $24 million awarded. The grants are designed to help partners implement and evaluate innovative approaches that have demonstrated conservation benefits on farmland.

1001

These conservation practices are sorely needed on Alabama farms for several reasons, said Rishi Prasad, assistant professor and Alabama Extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and leader of the research project.

“Many soils in Alabama are severely degraded and have low organic matter content,” Prasad said. “It is important to rebuild soil health to conserve soil for use by future generations. Increased adoption of cover crops by Alabama farmers can create sustainable row-crop production systems while protecting the state’s soil and water resources.”

Another aspect of the grant will be the demonstration of water-smart irrigation practices, he said.

“Summer droughts in Alabama are very common, often causing yield losses,” Prasad said. “The adoption of water-smart irrigation in Alabama is considered one of the most important strategies for mitigating the negative impacts of drought. This project will demonstrate the use of these technologies and help increase the adoption of irrigation in Alabama.”

The project also will help farmers evaluate nutrient losses and demonstrate the agronomic, economic and environmental benefits of improved conservation practices compared to farmers’ “business-as-usual” practices, he said.

“Fertilizer is one of the major inputs used in crop production,” Prasad said. “However, more than 50 percent of the purchased fertilizers ends up getting lost in air or water. This project will help farmers evaluate those losses.”

Three Alabama farms have been selected as cooperators for this project: Posey Farms in north Alabama, Lazenby Farms in central Alabama and L.C. Farms in south Alabama. These farms will be used to demonstrate the innovative conservation practices.

“The interesting part of this project is that any farmer who wants to adopt cover crops or smart irrigation technologies will receive incentive payments that include assistance for cover crop seed, planting and termination costs, labor charges and forgone income,” Prasad said. “Farmers also can borrow inter-seeder, roller crimper and soil moisture sensors from selected NRCS offices as a part of this project.”

A network of learning sites will be established at the extension offices located in Lawrence, Geneva and Lee counties, said Audrey Gamble, assistant professor and Alabama Extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, who also is involved in the grant. Project meetings with cooperating farmers and neighboring farmers will be organized, and information on the project will be presented.

“Farmers will be called for face-to-face meetings, dinner meetings, workshops and field days where information on topics related to cover crops, water-smart irrigation strategies, nutrient budgets and nutrient-use efficiencies will be presented,” Gamble said. “As project data becomes available, information will be shared with farmers at learning sites. The project already is underway, and we will be instrumenting these demonstration farms in the fall of 2020.”

For Brenda Ortiz, professor and Alabama Extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, the grant marks the continuation of on-farm irrigation projects she initiated in 2017.

“The important thing about this project is that we will look at the whole system—the impact of cover crops on soil health and soil structure that will impact soil water storage and movement which, in the end, will impact water availability for the crops and improved nutrient and water-use efficiency,” Ortiz said.

While technological changes take time, there is a greater awareness in Alabama now of what technology can do to increase irrigation efficiency, she said.

“Farmers and consultants have gained knowledge on the use of soil sensors for irrigation scheduling, and we have been able to demonstrate the impact of variable-rate irrigation at some sites,” Ortiz said. “However, more work is needed.”

Ortiz hopes the innovation grant will increase the adoption of practices such as irrigation scheduling.

“If we can accomplish this, it will be a great success story and will result in possible environmental and economic benefits,” she said. “The other piece of the puzzle is nutrient management. This project has a strong emphasis on environmental stewardship.”

Leah Duzy of the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory is working on the economic aspects of the grant. Innovation grant awardees are required to evaluate the economic and conservation outcomes from these practices and systems, giving NRCS critical information to inform conservation work in the future. That’s where Michelle Worosz, professor of rural sociology in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, will play a role in implementing the grant.

“Production agriculture by its very nature is sociological—there is nothing that is not a product of human activity and/or social interaction,” Worosz said. “In the case of our grant, I will examine the conservation-based decision-making processes that take place on the three selected farms. These farms will serve as case studies of technological change, adoption and adaptation.

“I also will observe the extension team as they interact with a broader range of participants during workshops and field days. It is hoped that data from the case studies and the observations can be used by the team to improve conservation technology. In other words, this feedback loop is a means of co-developing knowledge about conservation strategies, particularly smart irrigation and cover cropping.

The grant’s implementation on “real” farms is important to its success, Worosz said.

“Understandably, producers can be quite skeptical of experimental plots on research farms,” she said. “Because research plots are often smaller, they may receive an unrealistic amount or type of care, they may not be subject to the same rules or regulations, the farm manager and researchers might have access to more or different resources such as advanced technologies, the plots are not required to produce the same yields or produce the same return on investment, and they may be located in a place that is not comparable to producers’ farms.”

It’s also important that the conservation technologies will be co-developed by faculty and extension specialists working alongside farmers, Worosz said.

“This is a way to develop a more robust set of bundled technologies—technologies that will be more user-friendly and better able to meet the needs of the user while also meeting larger environmental goals,” she said. “If the user has input, it will help with a broader buy-in of these conservation technologies by other producers.”

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

1 year ago

Survey endorses local branding for Alabama specialty crops

(Auburn University/Flickr)

Would you be more willing to buy a bag of sweet potatoes, basket of peaches or a jar of honey if you knew from the label that it was grown in Alabama?

A recent survey conducted by researchers at Auburn University shows that the state’s specialty crop farmers and leaders of Alabama’s major agricultural organizations believe that establishing and promoting regional and farm-specific brands for specialty crops would benefit their production.

689

“This survey represents the first small step in a very long journey,” said Ruiqing Miao, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.

Miao worked on the survey with Loka Ashwood, assistant professor, and Ali Dawood, graduate student, both in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology; Taylor Johnson, associate bank examiner with the Farm Credit Administration and former graduate student; Deacue Fields, former chair of the department and currently dean of the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas; and Joe Kemble, Alabama Extension specialist and professor in the Department of Horticulture.

“The idea behind the initial proposal for the project was to seek ways and define barriers for establishing and promoting original branding for Alabama products,” Miao said. “Unlike some of our neighboring states, Alabama doesn’t have many original brands for specialty crops, even though we have very good products like sweet potatoes and Chilton County peaches.”

There is a lot of potential, he said, for Alabama to strengthen its specialty crop branding. The state consistently ranks high nationally in the production of such crops as pecans, sweet potatoes, blueberries, watermelons and peaches.

“Significant variations in climatic and geographical conditions across Alabama enable the state to produce abundant varieties of specialty crops,” Miao said. “Foreign and domestic competition, though, is growing for the state’s specialty crop growers in traditional commodity markets.”

New markets increasingly cater to quality, diversity, locality and even social and cultural heritage associated with agricultural products, he said.

“Alabama specialty crop growers are at a critical juncture to diversify their marketing options,” Miao said. “These challenges require specialty crop growers in Alabama to adjust their usual practices of producing and marketing products. Establishing regional or farm-specific brands for specialty crops is considered a crucial step to address these challenges.”

The research team began the project by interviewing eight group leaders in Alabama agribusiness. These interviews were intended to solicit the leaders’ opinions about the importance of branding and to identify the top specialty crops that would have the largest potential for branding.

“The eight group leaders unanimously believed that establishing and promotion regional and farm-specific brands for specialty crops in Alabama would benefit specialty crop producers,” Miao said. “As for the top candidate specialty crops for branding, the leaders all believed that sweet potatoes should be one of the top candidates. Honey and watermelons were mentioned by four out of eight group leaders, and peaches and strawberries were mentioned by three.”

Next, researchers interviewed farmers who produce the top two crops named by the group leaders—10 sweet potato producers and 10 beekeepers.

“We asked the farmers a different set of questions, including their opinion of branding, their barriers to branding and what types of resources or support they needed to implement branding,” Miao said.

Although the majority of interviewed farmers believed that branding would help specialty crop growers in Alabama, some expressed concerns that successful branding needs financial support from the state government, information support from branding experts and coordination support from farmer or agribusiness organizations, he said.

“There’s obviously an economic drive for branding—previous research has shown that branding can bring farmers a price premium,” Miao said. “But farmers need various resources and support to carry out branding.

“They need financial support because it costs money to establish branding. Also, they need support from experts in how to establish and launch branding. In addition, they need coordinated support from agribusiness organizations. Branding can bring farmers price premiums and higher profits, but there is also a cost.”

These needs of specialty crop farmers will require further research and cooperation with ag-related groups, he said.

“There is also a risk to fail, so we need to look at how to spread the risks or distribute the benefits,” Miao said. “This is not an easy task, and these surveys represent the very beginning steps.”

There is much more work to do, both from a research level and from producers and agricultural organizations, before specialty crop branding is commonplace in Alabama, he said.

This research is partially supported by an Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Specialty Crop Block Grant and by the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station.

(Courtesy Auburn University)

2 years ago

Auburn University leads $2 million DOE project to maximize U.S. fuel economy

(Auburn University)

Auburn University researchers are leading a $2 million U.S. Department of Energy project that promises to improve fuel efficiency and economy. The project will create a bio-based fuel additive that can be blended with diesel fuel to reduce soot and greenhouse gas emissions and yield cleaner engine operation in cold-weather conditions.

Joining as collaborators in the research are Cornell University, the University of Alabama, Virginia Tech and corporate partners Microvi Biotech Inc. and EcoEngineers.

616

The project is one of 42 totaling $80 million awarded by the DOE to support advanced vehicles technologies research. Approximately $10.1 million of the funding will support six projects, including the one led by Auburn, focusing on the co-optimization of engines and fuels.

“We are developing an integrated bioprocess for efficient butyl acetate (BA) production,” said Yi Wang, principal investigator for the project and assistant professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture. “We anticipate that adding BA to diesel fuel will reduce pollutants and costs associated with meeting environmental regulations.”

Butyl acetate is an organic compound that occurs naturally in various fruits and can be used as a flavoring in the food industry and a feedstock in various other industries. BA can be produced chemically. However, traditional petrochemical-based BA production is energy consuming and not environmentally friendly, Wang said.

The Auburn difference

Auburn researchers have developed a customized CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system that has resulted in an engineered strain with the highest BA production that has ever been reported in a microbial host (a patent has been filed from this work). The process uses a strain of Clostridium — a group of bacteria that thrive in the absence of oxygen — that is known for its ability to produce solvents.

“In this project, we will further enhance BA production through systematic genome engineering,” Wang said. “CRISPR technology has been used by many different labs, but we are one of the pioneering labs who have developed the customized CRISPR system that can be applied to the solventogenic clostridial strains, which are notoriously difficult to manipulate genetically.”

The knowledge generated from this research will be highly applicable to other bioprocesses and of broad interest to the scientific community and industry, he added.

Professor Emeritus Y.Y. Lee from the Chemical Engineering Department at Auburn University will focus on the downstream recovery of BA from the developed bioprocess.

University of Alabama’s role

Engineering researchers at Cornell University and the University of Alabama will test diesel fuel blended with BA produced by Auburn researchers. The project goal is to understand how the fuel mix ignites and reacts in diesel engines used in commercial trucks.

Different mixes of the fuel — some with more BA than others — will be investigated using a unique spray diagnostic apparatus developed at the University of Alabama and in UA’s heavy-duty diesel engine test platform, one of the few engine test cell facilities in the country.

“Our engine facilities and capabilities complement well with Auburn’s ability to produce the fuel,” said Joshua A. Bittle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UA.

“We are providing research support from the end-user side,” said Ajay K. Agrawal, the Barfield Endowed Chair professor in mechanical engineering at UA. “We will find out how this fuel mix improves engine emissions and efficiency both inside the engine cylinder and in an actual engine during a typical drive cycle.”

Before a new process such as this can be up-scaled for commercialization, a techno-economic analysis (TEA) is warranted. Virginia Tech’s role in the project is to conduct a TEA to evaluate the economic practicality of the biofuel being produced, said Haibo Huang, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology.

Quantifiable reductions in a fuel’s lifecycle emissions is one of the key factors in successful commercialization because of increasingly tighter restrictions on emissions in the transportation sector. The other corporate partner in the research project, EcoEngineers, a renewable energy consulting firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, will perform a lifecycle emissions analysis of BA as a bioblendstock for diesel fuel.

The project is an example of Auburn’s strategic partnerships that deliver practical, life-changing solutions to pressing national needs.

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)