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So, what's an iron goat?

So, what is an iron goat? In many respects, it's similar to a regular goat, the hardy domesticated animal noted for its frisky behavior and hearty appetite. Similarly, the iron goat roams, eating plants and producing "pellets." It has a digestive system that derives energy from the plants it consumes, so it will eat as long as there is something to eat. It's voracious, too, consuming 360 kg (800 lb) an hour. Sound great? But why would someone want one of these?

This goat is a harvesting machine--a computer-guided, self-powered pelleting harvester. It produces dry pelleted agricultural products directly from standing plants without human labor or fossil fuels.

While the initial market is forage for livestock fodder, this technology has applications in a variety of industries. The iron goat creates opportunities for commercial agricultural processes to coexist with the natural environment, reducing the need for segmented land management. Policy rules can be implemented in the software: "Eat this, not that," "Don't disturb the nesting birds," "Only harvest 10% of this area this year."

Its stereo hyperspectral machine vision system allows the iron goat to be species-selective, so it can target invasive species like Bromus tectorum (a noxious weed that invades grassland communities and displaces native plants), which often thrive in disturbed areas. Also known as drooping brome or cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum is responsible for significant wildfires in the U.S. Midwest.

While there are other interesting technical innovations in the iron goat, for any new technology to be sustainable, the biggest impact is in the business model. Removing the cost of labor and fuel makes big a difference, and that makes the iron goat a game changer in agricultural feed production. In addition, pelleted products are easier to transport, handle, and store compared to the conventional methods used for producing livestock feed, and the iron goat eliminates the need for a separate pelleting process.

Putting the goat out to nibble

In North America, the primary uses of the iron goat are in feed production and ecological engineering. In impoverished areas of the world, a self-powered feed and fuel producing machine could bring great changes. A low entry barrier to producing local fuel and livestock feed could serve as a catalyst for local economies and drive improvements in the local infrastructure. The process is designed primarily for grassy sources, so it can also reduce deforestation for fuel use.

The energy technology and biomass gasification process is simple: remove the water from harvested biomass, pelletize, and gasify. The output fuel is compatible with most engines designed for gasoline operation. In terms of performance, the process produces 8.5 kg [kWh.sup.-1] (141b hp-[h.sup.-1]) of dry pellets and consumes about 1.3 kg [kWh.sup.-1] (2.2 lb hp-[h.sup.-1]). For example, with a ~15 kW (20 hp) engine, production would be 128 kg [h.sup.-1] (280 lb [h.sup.-1]) and consumption would be 20 kg [h.sup.-1] (44 lb [h.sup.-1]). These figures include energy for cutting, moisture removal, biomass processing, mobility, and sensors. Co-generated heat from the engine is used for drying, and there is significant excess.

Gasification is not new

The production of energy through gasification has been around for nearly 200 years. Coal and peat, which were used to produce town gas for lighting and cooking in the 1800s, have since been replaced by electricity and natural gas. They were also used in blast furnaces, but they played a larger role in the production of synthetic chemicals, for which they have been used since the 1920s.

During both world wars, especially WWII, the need for gasification-produced fuel re-emerged due petroleum shortages, especially in occupied territories. Wood gas, also called gasogene or gazogene, was used to power motor vehicles in Europe. By 1945, there were trucks, buses, and agricultural machines powered by gasification. It is estimated that close to nine million vehicles were running on producer gas all over the world.

From the past to today's pellets

The iron goat converts biomass directly to pellet form in a single pass without human labor. The pellets, for use as fuel or fodder, are periodically off-loaded from the mobile harvester to fixed or mobile storage. The iron goat is guided by machine vision and GPS, and it can operate around the clock in most weather. The harvested crop also fuels the engine through the onboard gasification process, significantly reducing emissions and cost.

Future plans include micro-grid power generation and licensing the technology for use in vehicles, heating, and electrical power generation. We are also establishing partnerships on both the supply and demand sides of agricultural feed, power generation, and agricultural equipment manufacturing. The impact will be financial, social, and environmental. In emerging economies, where the capital equipment cost is a significant barrier to establishing power utilities, the iron goat can be a revolutionary microgrid solution. A single 600 lb harvester can produce enough fuel to provide 100 kW of continuous power. Environmentally, each harvester will offset about 600 tons (1.2 million lb) of C[O.sub.2] per season. We project 1000 harvesters running by 2017, with an aggregate offset of 600 ktons (1.2 billion lb) of C[O.sub.2].

So, where did this idea come from?

Spurred by the continual dread of lawn mowing, I created a mower that not only drives itself around the yard but also runs on fuel made from its own grass clippings. Based on a tractor-type mower with a conventional rotary cutter deck, the design stores the leftover fuel for quick startups, as well as for use in heating and, on a much larger scale, supplying power plants and prime movers with clean, sustainable energy. As always, one thing leads to another.

ASABE member Jason Force, CEO, Iron Goat Technologies, Clifton, Va., USA,,
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Author:Force, Jason
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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