Peggy Korth's Cattail Notes

These notes from Peggy Korth bring us up to date as a new growing season begins. It is welcome to follow a group of enthusiasts learning the rules of cattail husbandry and sharing the results. Step by step, some level of mastery is achieved.

Actually, this type of log, I find seriously exciting. We are watching a major new crop been mastered for human consumption and industrial feedstocks worldwide. When done, everyone will wonder why we took so long.

We learned something here today. The roots are actually kept on top of the water table and kept saturated. This strongly suggests that sewage treatment pads can be built in such a way as to avoid significant standing water and undesirable conditions. Instead we concentrate in developing trickle down pads that receive the fluids.

This also reminds me of the awful excessive spraying of raw cattle and pig manure onto fields, far in excess of their carrying capacity. Converting those same fields into cattail pads will likely largely if not completely solve the problem and deliver a salable or even directly usable crop for the farm

The fields are been constantly saturated, so little more is needed besides planting the cattails. I had assumed, naturally enough that we needed to manage extensive ditching and drainage not unlike a rice paddy. This could not be further from the truth. We want to manage wetness instead and that is a lot easier. It is also easier to dry out at harvest time.

Recall that she is also marketing a nifty ethanol still. See my earlier post some months back.

Cattail Histhings
March 2009

Water Assurance Technology Energy Resources
40 Sun Valley Dr., Spring Branch TX 78070
FAX (830) 885-4827; Cell: (512) 757-4499

New Outlook: We all need each other to make a statement about the value of small and midsized production… either farm-based or community focused. Now that the government is pouring billions into ‘recovery’ it is empowering regulators to make moves never before considered. Regulating is what regulators do. I encourage everyone to dedicate time ‘right now’ to their self-sufficiency steps. Our work is being copied by university scientist and we are feeding them good ideas. By being “OPEN SOURCE” and having all you great people share in the development of our common interests, we should circumvent proprietary projects that would seek to restrict our commercialization. If we all work together to build one with another we may conquer supply and demand obstacles.

I feel a Cattail A’rizing: With the influx of spring the stored starches in the rhizomes will be zooming into stalks. Please consider grubbing out a few rhizomes at your earliest convenience and checking starch conversion. You do not need to distill the rhizomes in order to make a mash. So what good is a mash without distilling it? Solely for research and data sharing… and practice… and testing enzymes… and learning how to shred the rhizomes and plenty of other preliminary processing practice. This can be a great science project to share with kids, too.

International Community of ‘Locals’ Unite: AK writes…I live in an intentional community that has had problems with waste water. We have contacted and worked with our state authorities and they advised a septic system that we have installed and has failed. They recommended a 10,000 foot leach field and all the houses (18 total with 250 people) have individual systems that the overflow goes into the overflow system. This large system has saturated the soil and has caused the area to run off with green gack. Some of the houses are not hooked into this system and they are all running out on to the ground. It is quite disgusting. This is where I was hoping you could help.

I have applied and received my alcohol permit from the ATF and we are hoping that raising cattails in our sewage overflow will create alcohol for sale and for the community. I have several men that are helping me with everything, so I am not alone in my venture. We are very interested in getting greener and the attitude of the members is conducive to changing our habits to use less energy. What can your organization do for a community like ours? I eagerly await your response.

PK Suggests Problem Solving on Multiple Levels: During a feasibility design by a group of associates from Sustainable Technology Systems (STS) we address both purpose and functionality. State regulators can advise and approve final design if necessary in your location. During a recent EPA regional meeting Cattails to Ethanol was presented to individuals from government, community groups, and industry. For the first time in decades the EPA appears to be more open to new ideas. They are very interested in the potential of remediating surface water from feedlots. HOWEVER these ideas must often flow through state regulatory systems. Louisiana approves botanical remediation and many states are allowing test systems or wetland variations. Therefore, when STS address a community project we include a small part of the budget for an investigator to work with regulators and review variances or special permitting if that state has restrictive conveyances in place.

At this time one of the poorest towns in Texas cannot meet their wastewater discharge levels and cattails can offer a great deal of hope for this community including multiple purposes. However, the commission that regulates wastewater has not yet accepted botanical remediation. This regulatory agency demands a very expensive processing system that is simply not affordable. Therefore, whatever answer I give to any interested party is tempered with the understanding that it may or may not be implemented according to local regulators.

Yes, there are a number of botanicals that can address sewerage discharge remediation. The reason that I promote cattail is because it has so many additional benefits and co-products Cattails can be grown as a field crop. Energy availability is important. Merging various technologies to solve energy needs is practical. If parabolic solar energy is an option, then that is an excellent resource. In a desert town where we intend to set up a pilot project, parabolic solar energy is most practical. Also, because this community is located close to a National Forest and in an area of invasive species we may use waste heat from a gasifier that can also generate electricity. All work is evolving and all I ask in return for my efforts in writing Cattail Histhings is that you share back with us on your trials and successes. Now more than ever we need to assure that local communities can provide basic services.

TS writes concerning a narrative posted to the Alcoholfuel forum on Cellulosic Enzymes: Just keeping up with you is a challenge; the wealth of information there is amazing. Thank you for all your time and effort you expend on the project, we need more people who will put in the hours and years even if it isn’t popular. The information on the cellulose enzymes is very interesting. I hope they do come through with it in 2010, if not sooner. Seems we are always 5 years or one year from getting something.

PK Comments: If requested, I can reprint my narrative. Let me hear from you.

TS Continues: Things will start happening faster. The snow has melted from one of the cattail patches enough that I think I can get a few buckets of them. Of course I can’t give sugar content numbers, but I can give how many lbs makes how much. The warmer weather allows me to keep a more constant heat going, so I might be able to make the first batch of 09 soon. Please don't think I am just excited and will fade away, or that I am unable to do things so they are useful to the scientific community, if I know what to record and in what values it will be. If you can point me in the direction of where to purchase equipment to measure sugar content and proof, or how to make them, I can get them either right now or first week of April. I will have another piece of the puzzle in place with the tools. I wish I was at this point two years ago, but the information took its time finding me. :)

PK Suggests: remains the best reference resource for small scale fuel ethanol production. Shopping for good pricing on component parts could save a little money. Be sure to review how to use the hand instruments. Additional educational resources are available through the New Distillers at Yahoo Groups and the archives of both the Alcoholfuel forum and the New Distillers forums. DO NOT discuss fuel on the distiller’s forums. They are beverage people and limit discussions to the art and science of distilling.

Please Debunk Myths: When you start your trials this season, please develop a protocol. Suggestion: carefully measure one square meter of rhizomes or stalks and share your data with us. There is no right or wrong number. And it will be nice to learn about ‘your’ cattails. Comments of interest could include: depth of the water, relative cleanliness of water (flow), ambient temperature (night and day—more or less), approximate age of the cattail stand and whatever else you think would be of interest. Be sure to tell us what you put in the mash pot such as shredded rhizomes, common enzymes, % of alcohol, etc. Real numbers will be good to discuss. Thanks for sharing your efforts.

Stripping Stalks: A specialized process for splitting cattail stalks allows better juicing potential. Sugar cane, sweet sorghum, cattail, and several other crops show better juicing and co-product value when processed with pulp extraction and not simple squeezing. The difference in stalk girth is significant when the cattails grow in the presence of urea: the more urea, the more sugar.

Zealous Action: Dig, Scrape Chop, or use standardized farming equipment. One reader states, “Another harvest method might be a bulldozer since trench ponds only need to be about a foot deep. I'd like to see someone fabricate a 12' bucket out of expanded metal to release the water and reduce weight. Then those sweet sugary little rhizomes could get scooped and dumped I assume after the stalks were chopped away manually?”

PK Comments: Whoa! Big Bull. Processing the rhizomes and the stalks can be two entirely different mashing methods; also they are optimized for sugar content at different times of the year. Also, your feedstock should be clean and free of excess dirt, mud and muck.

Cattail roots do not need to be in standing water, but they do need to be in saturated soil. In my opinion, the best use of a bulldozer would be to set up trenches that could be drained during the harvest. And Big Bull, if you feed those sweet stalks to the cows, they will follow you anywhere—especially after cooking in a mash. Cows love a little residual alcohol in their mash which also promoted milk production.

Just a few seed heads will do Ya’—One reader states: The cigars contain the thousands of seed for the next crop and if there were a sheltered workshop or Eli Whitney out there to give us a machine to pluck the fluffy down from the flower it would make good use of by product.

PK Replies: Ideally the seeds are harvested in the fluff stage and planted within a few weeks. The ground only needs to be moist and does not need to be covered with water to sprout the seeds. Young plant may be transplanted in three months to a year. Be sure to check the seed heads to be sure that they are in tact. Be cautions about stepping into a marsh. A curtain rod with a hook on the end and a net below can capture more than enough seeds for most projects.

Another Untapped Resource: Korean investors and scientists are searching the United States for good cattail beds to be used for paper and fiber. Working through the University of Nebraska, several bales of dried cattail stalks and leaves were sent to the University of North Carolina for pulp quality testing. This test batch is reported to have 30% excellent pulp for paper processing. The better news is that with our associate’s superior processing method, more fiber can be preserved without ‘ratting’ the billets. Billets are stacks of stalks cut for processing. Ratting is flailing the biomass to break it down. If you are interested in cattails as a wood pulp replacement (as is Asia) let me know. Scaling down a system for small producers will require several inquiries of interest. It’s like asking an engineer that designs eighteen-wheelers to design a sports car…. And we do have their interest! This is NEW cutting edge investment into cattail as a pulp and paper technology resource and you are among the first to know.

M. Experiments with Biomass Mash: I wonder if a sorghum press would squeeze liquids from the stalks that could be cooked up and 'stilled. And could the residual stalks be chopped into feed additive or just composted? I was going to try the chipper method to chop 'em up even if it takes a couple of passes to reduce the buggers down to grinding size. This is one of the more challenging steps in the process because it eats a fair amount of time and energy.

PK Comments: One of our cattail people reported tearing up a chipper from the tough rhizomes. The stalk can be processed like slaw in a mash; the remains can be added to animal feed.

M’s Frugal Thoughts: I am using salvaged heating oil so some cost stay in check. This is one of those "opportunities" we are all awaiting to get invented and no doubt there is a guy with a wind/water grist mill somewhere who is going to get very rich. I only hope he sacks the stuff in 35# bags so my back can keep up. Keep us posted as you perfect better- more efficient methods.

PK: Grist mill, tub grinder, and whacks with a machete followed by a stone mutate could all work. You are so right about reducing labor. Right now, we simply need investigators. Thanks for the ideas. I recently visited with a man that is actually using a machete. If anyone is taking this much care, please set a grid and map your yield by the square meter. Its a great way to start.

Let’s Talk: Ideas to consider when mashing, fermenting, and distilling. What are you doing?

1. Optimum enzymes in plant growth such as ‘hormone impulses’ are often triggered by physical or climate influence. This kind of enzyme changes the root starch into a stalk sugar.

2. pH adjustments are best related to optimizing microbes that make enzymes to break down complex sugars or starches than to a plant once the sugars/ starchy biomass is exposed.

3. The exposure of sugars can be a physical property in mashing and juicing. Reports from experimenters that have tried simply chopping up the stalks were quite disappointing.

4. For best results consider grinding the rhizomes and shredding or juicing the stalks.

5. When processing stalks, remove the leaves and pre-clean the rhizomes. An ultrasound pre-bath could be ideal if it is available for a number of reasons--and this can be another research option to include in a protocol. Older roots are extremely tough. Ultrasound should remove muck from the outer surface and may somewhat impact the fibrous tissue prior to grinding. A used mechanics' ultrasound machine for cleaning parts or an old ultrasound unit from a medical/ dental office may serve your purposes for bench testing. A medical or dental supply house may have trade-ins available for the asking. My mentor from Florida used a blender for mashing in his bench testing. Another Florida man used a shrubbery mulching machine. Both were amazed at the tenaciousness of the rhizome almost ruining the equipment. Therefore, I recommend first cutting the rhizomes into manageable pieces. Once we develop a commercial formula, we plan to sell an appropriate piece of equipment. Young rhizomes can be processed with a blender or food processer for bench testing but still need to be pre-cut.

6. The Native Americans ground the cattail root (rhizome) into a meal or flour when using it as a sweetening agent. Many of their processing areas were dips in the stones of the creek bed where they pounded the rhizomes with a round rick. Projects in South America plan to use the rhizome as a binding agent in food processing and products

7. SARE has a great graduate student assistance program with a modest sum to support research projects. Please consider cattails if you are a grad student.

8. One simple inexpensive research still is called a 'ministill'. The free plans are published on the 'newdistillers' yahoo forum by bokabob. Australia is the home of many distilling participants primarily based in beverage distilling who love their art and craft. Contact these distillers for practical advice--even on enzyme selection but not directly related to fuel production but rather to starch conversion. Their archives are immense with good 'search' capabilities.

9. One good point to repeat is to develop projects in incremental or modular growth/ development according to return-on-investment. Plans flexibility can become affordable.
10. Incorporate project management outlines and other groundwork essentials before you hire your first employee. Check out Bioenergy Business as presented by WATER.

Preaching and Teaching: Until about two months ago, the only other person that I was aware of actively preaching cattail investigation was David Blume (besides several hundred new-comers that receive the Cattail Histhings newsletters). If you do not have Dave Blume's book, "Alcohol Can Be a Gas", consider adding it to your library. One DB student stated that Dave uses a referactometer in the field to estimate potential biomass sugars. Cattails to Ethanol prints an actual study as submitted to the Department of Energy in the grant summary. We appreciate bench testing or actual runs of feedstock to use as a baseline rather than field estimates. Please send in your figures to share with the group.

During the past couple of months, old cattail researchers seem to be rising out of the swamp. They wish to pick up their studies with the intent to take up the lead in research funding for academic institutions—stimulated by funds availability. If you are an academic researcher, please consider that the world at large needs your input as you move through your test regimes. Thanks for keeping us informed just as you are inspired by our sharing through these newsletters. And thanks for also giving credit where credit is due. BTW, there are literally thousands of scientific papers written about cattails but not much information is devoted to fuel or paper potential. How about trying something new in research? For the rest of us, we will be simply making fuel while the university labs study various comparative anatomies and growth potential. With this ‘weed’ all you really need is wastewater and a good grinder.

Our Harmonious Band Plays On: (A grad student was offered an idea to serve cattail producers with lab products yet has not yet responded to the following suggestion.) Over the past fourteen years I have befriended many excellent researchers and collaborated on a number of projects. And now a number of us band together to become 'associates' with individual businesses that cooperate on projects as necessary. If you [the grad student] decide to move forward with your study as a co-lateral business, we may be able to network clients. A dedicated lab man is needed for biomass/ specimen evaluation during feasibility design. Stages of development require various specialists. Therefore, perhaps our reader-investigators could practice the craft and gather data while making money at the same time. With my travel, it is difficult to maintain multiple facilities and such a service would help new interests get started.

Each associate is responsible for his individual work so that my company contracts the participant as a consultant one project at a time without direct legal affiliations other than the one-by-one contract. There is enough wealth for each of us to enjoy creative and fulfilling lives.

My participation with assisting people requires that I have access to recommendations following experimentation. Some of the simple answers should be shared with the world at large. Proprietary information is available solely to the discoverer; yet we would want access to your dissertation and/ or grant summary. One example of commercialization can be the sale of microbes to clients. I have long lists of future clients that can purchase products from our associates. The lab that also has the ability to make broth, culture strains, and keep a library of microbes is gold plated. Pure cultures from the American Collection cost anywhere from $150 to $350. Of course, an investigator can simply buy commercial products for experimentation.

Our engineers are designing small to mid-sized state-of-the art equipment for bioenergy production including adjunctive technologies. We plan to debut some of these in the near future. Biochemistry is an important part of the big picture.

2010, 2050, and Beyond: Suppose the major fuel suppliers cannot quite reach their mandated goals. Who do you think will be rationed? Who can the limitations of available biofuels most effect? People in the western states are quite spread out without a mass transit. Congress is being pressured into making decisions based on East Coat rationale and zealous environmentalist often have a limited focus. Having your own fuel available sets you apart from some compliance and availability concerns. Expect more and tighter restraints as we move into our next few years of belt-tightening. Be prepared. Grow and process cattails to ethanol.

Community leaders take care of ‘home-base’: Community self-reliance is important to homeland security. Can one grand concept save the country or the world? This new methodology could cover many basic community needs thereby relieving pressure and providing liquid fuel. Use cattail flour meal to provide energy. Let the municipalities eat cake (as Marie Antoinette would say). We must work for family, then community, and then spread out from there. Because we may be headed for a bumpy few years, let's focus on solutions.

As a country we are broke. Any action that helps in healing must be considered. We need a competitive labor market—a workforce without rampant litigation. We need reliable employees. The only thing we are entitled to is freedom. If communities are self-sufficient, we could switch the power to the state governors and down-size DC. It takes a great deal of effort to implement change in a way that will not cost future generations. Consider the 7th generation.

Water Management Companies Petition to LOWER Standards: Instead of lowering standards, we can raise them with cattail remediation in wastewater streams. Several water management companies have petitioned EPA to lower water-quality standards because the need for water is increasing exponentially and they cannot keep up. We need to assure that our local town fathers keep our water clean even though the federal government may try to continue to feed their dinosaurs by lowering standards. So let's stay active on our local level to supply what we know if best for our communities. Consider cattail remediation.

Bioenergy Glossary Can Define Terms: A reader asks…Can you tell me how to quantify about how much methanol one could expect from an acre of cattails? I am on the verge of buying some property in west Texas and will probably put a cattail pond on it to produce my own methanol.

PK Replies: I am just now learning about methanol production from swamps or trash dumps and harvesting said gas. There are Internet forums that specifically discuss methanol. However I will comment on Cattails to Ethanol. Both stalk growth and rhizome growth are optimized by the nutrient value of the water. High urine content in wastewater is very nutritive to the cattails Rhizomes store starch during the dormant cycle of the plant. If you plan to harvest the stalks, then it will be more difficult for the rhizomes to pull down the sugars from the stalks and convert them into starch. Also, be sure to cut the stalk so that several inches remain ABOVE the water line so that the stalk allows the rhizomes to breathe and re-grow.

My mentor focused on rhizome growth. The literature states that cattail reach maturity by two years. One cattail grower reported dynamic new seeding by only a few plants after one year. Seeding is a product of maturation. Rhizomes continue to grow over time and shoots can emerge from intertwined rhizomes or any where along the lateral root system as another means of propagation. The only documented data we have relates to rhizome conversion in a pond that was just over a year old in planting. Therefore, reproduction surveys come from a literary review. The reports on stalk sugars do not have supportive data that I am aware of and I tentatively plan to initiate studies on stalk sugar analysis when funded. I continue to ask the people who share the newsletter list to report on their findings. We need more dedicated participants to send us information. Hopefully this spring will sprout a few reports as well as good fuel ethanol. When an interested party is ready to perform systematic analysis, please contact me to assist in a test protocol that suits your needs as well as helping the rest of us understand your work. Parameters include water quality, climatic conditions, and more. When a person requests help with protocol development we request access to findings. This kind of study could qualify for grants… perhaps small SARE grants can apply. To answer your question, the only figure I can give is from the literature and that is more than 1000 gallons per acre. David Blume projects a far greater number and I look forward to publication on that data.

Still Waiting: I am interested in purchasing a still also. Can you forward me a price for the 6 gallon a day product?

PK Answers: STS has a manufacturing entity bidding on the AirCore (MAC) systems at this time. We assume it will be about a dollar per annual gallon production capacity. Unlike most distillery producers, the MAC series cost less as the size increases. We will keep the price as low as possible. Also, there are a number of kits and plans that can be obtained for nominal fees or even free plans on the Internet. Many people who are handy with tools construct small stills. Even the little MiniStill from the New Distiller’s forum is adequate to learn distilling and test feedstock. MAC series = MiniAirCore, MidiAieCore, and MaxiAirCore. Patents pending.

Officially On Line: I accepted a consulting position with an international firm. They are to provide clients and I am paid by the hour. Primarily the job description is in explaining bioenergy and giving advice to small investors. I see this opportunity as a way to introduce equipment and methods that can be contracted separately. I do not expect significant income from the consulting, but can bank off the referrals. (Pun intended) Wish me a client or two.

TS Commented in January: Awesome newsletter this month! One of the entries looks familiar. February will be the start of my project with cattails. I am going to buy a food disposal, the type that is mounted under a kitchen sink. Going with a 1/3 hp model for starters. It will be mounted under an old cast iron sink that was here when I moved in, with a 5 gallon bucket under it to start. Need to find out how much water and how fine the rhizomes come out, if it takes two passes, so be it, if only one then one of my conversion barrels will go under it. If it works well, then we can pass that along for low cost processing ideas.

PK Confirms: Yes, a garbage disposal should work well for the rhizomes. Hopefully you will find a heavy duty one. One of our people from the past used a small garbage disposal that was abandoned from a remodeled kitchen and it didn't hold up. We look forward to a great report. The consistency of the mash should approach beverage production consistencies. The more area of the concentrated starch that is exposed, the easier it will be for the yeasti beastie to munch. The mash should become more liquefied as it ferments. We need people like you to give us reports and estimate workable proportions—develop recipes…. I would tend to be a little generous with the water in the beginning because of the concentration of polysaccharides. Balancing the pH may be easier with less water.

The Acid Truth: When adding acid, start with less than what you expect. Then, as you near your desired pH only add very small amounts incrementally. Our lab man was horrified with the heavy hand used by the technicians during practice batches for processing a number of various feedstocks. Each feedstock responded differently to the addition of acids. Some quickly ramped into desired ranges and some needed more, and more, and more acid added. Battery acid is cheap and available at most any automotive store.

A Barrel of Fun: A reader laments: My problem right now is finding enough plastic barrels, since I want to do the conversion and fermenting in them. They take the corrosion of that process a bit better than the steel drums. Once I find enough larger tanks, or can afford to buy some, I will move up a bit. Until then it only takes four barrels to get a 250 gallon still charged. I'm planning an 8" packed column to start, and I will probably end up buying 16' of it in 4' sections, unless my incredible scrounging skills uncover some pipe, like they found the tanks for the boiler. Most of what I build is from parts I have scrounged, even my cars.

PK Suggests: Smaller, strong-resistant barrels can usually be obtained from soft drink companies such as Coca Cola. The barrels we obtained in the Rio Grande Valley cost $10 each and proved to be an excellent container for mashing and fermenting. The most expensive purchases were the various pumps because we demonstrated various feedstock mashes side by side which requirred a pump for each batch. A late cold front with heavy gusts of wind greatly impacted the temperatures of the demonstration batches. The total success was amazing considering the demonstration sight and the trials of a new technical crew attempting to show 'how to'. As we understand… we all of us have our 'trials'. Please share yours.

TS Is Ready for Spring. Are you? I have permission to harvest another 4 acres of cattails a mile down the road. Also I can use the backhoe to get them if I provide the fuel for it, and of course don't break it while running it. So this summer should prove to be quite educational provided I get enough rhizomes, a bit of pipe, and my methane power plants up and running. The plan is to document everything as I build the new still, get it operational, and process the cattails for fuel. I have been having somewhat heated discussions about ethanol of late, and I am itching for some proof of yield, ease of processing, and general low cost of fuel since methane made from yard waste will be my heat source. Now not only do I want to get my cars running on it, and provide heat for the house and shop in the process, but I want to show the world how anyone can make enough fuel for themselves, and perhaps the community, all with natural energy and weeds.

PK Comments: Thank you for this inspirational email. You will find mature rhizomes in a well-established stand of natural growth. They will be so intertwined that a flood could not wash them away. Read the information in the book Small Scale Fuel Ethanol Production: Cattails to Ethanol to understand more about their growth potential and patterns. And remember as an invasive species cattails tend to grow back. And this is a good thing!

Thanks for the opportunity to visit about cattails. I have much more to report, but eight pages are enough for one issue. More later…. Best Wishes, Peggy

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