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Saturday, December 27, 1997

Kenaf, cousin of cotton and okra, may become new cash crop

HOUSTON (AP) -- At a factory on the east side of Houston, a processing plant is trying to make a cash crop out of a cousin of cotton and okra.

Using equipment that borrows heavily from cotton gins, the Petroexx company is turning the weed-like stalks of kenaf into an absorbent used for soaking up oil spills and an additive to mix with the mud used in drilling oil and gas wells.

Only 25 pounds of the company's Kenaf 2000 brand absorbent will soak up a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil, it says, compared with 67 pounds of peat or 665 pounds of clay-based absorbent.

Target markets, in addition to offshore cleanup, are wellheads, compressor stations and refineries.

It's a typical chicken-and-egg situation: local farmers growing the crop need factories such as this to justify planting kenaf, while the processing companies need large plantings to assure a supply of raw materials.

The mud additive has been used in the United States and exported to Canada, Venezuela, Italy and Egypt, said Clifford Johnson, the company's vice president and chief financial officer.

It forms a seal in the bore hole to prevent seepage of drilling fluid, which must be kept circulating while the bit is turning.

The plant is designed to handle 40 tons per day, but isn't to that point yet, said plant manager Richard Hensley.

The operation has yet to turn a profit, but is close and should reach that goal next year, Johnson told the Houston Chronicle.

The kenaf raw material comes in 450-pound rectangular bales from International Paper, which is growing kenaf on 1,500 acres of an old farmstead in Arkansas, near Texarkana.

As of November, Petroexx was one of four active fiber separation plants in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has promoted kenaf.

The USDA says three more are planned for 1998, and a 200-ton-per-day, $130 million newsprint mill is in the final stages of planning somewhere in the South.

The USDA says kenaf will be grown on about 18,000 acres next year, compared to 7,043 acres in 1997 and 4,245 acres in 1996.

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