UM researchers receive $1.1 million biomass grant

By Matt Soberg | October 06, 2011

Researchers from the University of Montana in Missoula have received $1.1 million to study various aspects of woody biomass feedstocks, technology and economics. The funding is from the Biomass Research and Development Initiative, a collaboration between USDA and the U.S. DOE. 

The funds are part of a $5.3 million BRDI grant awarded to the Rocky Mountain Research Station, an affiliate of the U.S. Forest Service, “to develop an integrated approach to investigate biomass feedstock production, logistics, conversion, distribution and end-use centered on using advanced conversion technologies at existing forest industry facilities,” according to the USDA.

Through established relationships, the University of Montana collaborated with the Rocky Mountain Research Station, other universities and industry contacts and submitted a grant proposal in 2010. Biomass-related research is something the professors at the University of Montana have been pursuing for several years, and with the collaboration of the other organizations, the group felt the grant fit with their biomass-related knowledge and expertise, according to Tyron Venn, associate professor for the University of Montana’s department of natural resource economics.

For projects awarded in 2011, the BRDI required that they integrate all three legislatively mandated technical areas including feedstock development, biofuels and biobased products development, and biofuels and biobased products development analysis. The grant was awarded in spring of 2011, and the university received confirmation that funding will occur in late summer. 

The project is expected to take four years with publicly released results planned for the end of 2013. Venn doesn’t anticipate that preliminary findings will be released due to the amount of fieldwork, data collection and analysis required.

The research will be conducted by Venn and his colleagues Woodam Chung, associate professor of forest operations, and Christopher Keyes, research associate professor of silviculture, director, applied forest management program. 

Chung will develop models showing feedstock availability and practical ways to network biomass to processing facilities, as well as projecting future biomass supply. Keyes will conduct a long-term study on the effect of biomass harvest for overall forest productivity, according to the University of Montana. 

Venn said he will be researching the renewable energy preferences of western Montana residents and their willingness to pay for various energy sources, comparing fossil fuels, wind, solar and biomass fuels.  Venn will also be doing extensive economic analysis on the use of biomass gasification technology, including financial appraisals and nonmarket valuations.

The University of Montana is in the process of planning a $16 million combined-heat-and-power gasification plant expected to be operational in 2013. Venn stated that the BRDI grant received is completely independent from the on-site facility planned for the university due to various reasons including the different technologies being utilized.