Pine Tree Potential

Researchers are investigating the use of pine trees for bioenergy.
By Anna Austin | March 21, 2011

Researchers at the University of Georgia are using an $880,000 USDA grant to experiment with pine tree plantations for potential use for electricity and biofuel production.

The project will not examine the economics of using trees for bioenergy, but will instead focus on quality growth methods and environmental impacts on soil and water quality and carbon sequestration.

Each of the four team members, researchers at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, has a different role. Associate Professor Daniel Markewitz will study the amount of carbon stored underground by the trees and what happens to it when they are harvested. Associate Professor Michael Kane will focus on aboveground tree components including tree dimensions such as height, diameter and branching, as well as biofuel and timber biomass. Professor Robert Teskey will research the biology of tree growth, what happens physiologically to pine trees when planted closer together and how efficiently they capture energy from the sun. And, Assistant Research Scientist Dehai Zhao will provide an integrative life-cycle carbon analysis, modeling above- and below-ground carbon accumulation and losses of carbon due to forest management activities, identifying the benefits of pine biofuels for reducing carbon loss to the atmosphere.

Markewitz says the project is already underway, and the team is currently recruiting students to work on the project and selecting specific project sites. Field work will begin this summer. 

The researchers are focusing on pine trees for many reasons, Markewitz says.  “First, we—in the collective sense including forest industry, timber management organizations, nonindustrial private forest landowners, public landowners, universities, etc.—are very good at growing pine,” he says. “This is amply demonstrated by the timber resources growing in the Southeast, so there is already a lot of growing stock on the ground and a great deal of available infrastructure to grow and harvest this feedstock.”

Additionally, most of the planted southern pines are native to the region, Markewitz says. “As such, we are trying to improve on many decades of existing knowledge and investment. Finally, the USDA was specifically interested in a number of feedstocks, which included southern pine.”

The researchers believe that incorporating bioenergy feedstock production into existing systems of timber production could be beneficial to regional landowners and to national energy security.

—Anna Austin