Etna Township is looking into a pilot project that involves trying to grow sunflower or canola crops for biofuel.

Etna Township is looking into a pilot project that involves trying to grow sunflower or canola crops for biofuel.

The township's economic development committee met Feb. 17 to discuss using abandoned lanes of state Route 158 for the pilot project to determine if the township could successfully grow such crops on interstitial highway land and use the crop for biofuel.

Committee member Mark Schaff said he has been exploring the idea with the Ohio Department of Transportation and that a meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. March 17 at Route 158 and U.S. Route 40, with ODOT representatives in attendance to explore the possibility of establishing such a pilot program.

"We want to expand the scope of the gateway landscaping program to include sunflower seed and flax seed and other biodiesel fuels that are also very attractive," Schaff said. "It's possible to meet simultaneously the goal of the gateway landscaping program for beautification and to simultaneously produce fuel."

Township zoning official Chris Harkness said the project could help give Etna a recognized identity, based on a common crop image.

"The sunflower could become the signature of Etna Township," Harkness said.

Schaff said the program could provide costless fuel to the township and save ODOT money in maintaining roads.

"If we are successful with this project, we can produce fuel for township vehicles," Schaff said. "And we have reason to because we can be successful. Utah, North Carolina and at least one other state are presently successful of taking advantage of median strips and sides of highways and land that's not being used to produce biofuel crops. The department of transportation saves money on fuel."

The goal is to start with Route 158 as a pilot program and then expand it.

"We'll work out all the bugs on the abandoned section of Route 158 that would be the ideal perfect test site to say, 'Let's try it out,'" Schaff said. "It's not being used anyway. If we are successful there, we can talk about moving to U.S. Route 40, and then we can talk about moving to Interstate 70. Interstate 70 is the 'Holy Grail.' There is lots of land in the middle of Interstate 70. The question is whether it is at an angle that you can harvest it and what the safety is."

One of the unknown issues is whether harvesting equipment could navigate the terrain alongside roadways.

Schaff said Route 158 would be a good place to find out.

"It goes from very flat to very steep to everything in between," he said. "I'll be surprised if ODOT does not agree to expand the gateway landscaping program. We'll be in a position to argue to move this program to the Interstate system. We've got perfect experimental setup that won't cost anything."

"It is a perfect site for it," Harkness said. "To get the initial test is going to be a huge step.