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Ginning Lab Celebrates 50 Years of Research

LAS CRUCES -- Times were changing for the cotton industry when a new ginning research laboratory opened on the New Mexico State University campus on Dec. 17, 1949.

The first successful machine harvester had just been released, and cotton production was moving west. The only other U.S. Department of Agriculture ginning lab at the time, located in Stoneville, Miss., dealt with rain-grown cotton varieties of the South. To help growers and ginners in the irrigated West, Congress approved a research facility in Las Cruces.

On Dec. 15, the Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory celebrated 50 years of innovation with an open house and public program.

Since its inception, the lab has focused on the needs of Southwestern cotton growers and ginners.

"Some of the highest quality cotton comes out of these high desert valleys," Hughs said. "We're known for our Acala 1517 cotton, which is a very high-quality variety developed at NMSU, as well as the extra-long staple Pima cotton we grow here."

The lab has been responsible for several major advances in ginning technology. "It was not until about 1960 that more cotton was machine-harvested than hand-harvested in the United States," Hughs noted. "The ginning problems changed as the harvesting and production practices changed."

Ginners needed a way to separate extra trash from machine- harvested cotton. Victor Stedronsky, the lab's first director, developed a flow-through lint cleaner, which used a saw mechanism.

"We still have saw-type lint cleaners," Hughs said. "They've changed somewhat, but they still have the basic saw and brush doffing mechanism he developed in response to machine harvesting."

The lab also developed early rotary knife roller gins, used to gin extra-long staple Pima cotton grown in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

"The one that was released was called the flight bar," Hughs said. "It was then changed back to an earlier design, the rotary knife, which is still used today."

This year, ginners in West Texas are using the latest lint cleaner design developed at the lab. Lummus Corporation released the Sentinel lint cleaner, using a new lint feeding mechanism.

"It's a gentler way of cleaning that doesn't break as many fibers or tie as many knots in the cotton," Hughs explained. "It also has an environmental advantage of lower gin emissions because the fiber is moved along mechanically instead of with air."

The lab's staff of 12 USDA and NMSU employees works on issues ranging from gin emissions to fiber quality testing for new cotton varieties. Recently, they began assisting the Chile Pepper Task Force in developing chile cleaning equipment because it's a process similar to ginning cotton.

The lab's main focus, of course, is cotton's quick journey through the gin. In less than two minutes, 1,350 pounds of seed cotton is separated into a 480- to 500-pound bale of cotton and 800 pounds of seed. The rest is trash.

"It's doesn't take very long for cotton to go through, but it's quite a violent operation in some ways," Hughs said. "During drying, you're hitting it with 300- to 350-degree air. You're mechanically cleaning it, whipping it over bars with a lot of force. So it has an interesting life there for about a minute and and a half or so."

Almost as interesting as the 50-year life of the lab.