USDA funds research to convert beetle-killed trees to bioenergy
The USDA has announced it has awarded nearly $10 million to a consortium of academic, industry and government organizations led by Colorado State University and their partners to research using insect-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable feedstock for bioenergy. The award, provided under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, is part of USDA's effort to develop modern solutions for climate challenges in agriculture and natural resource management. AFRI is provided under the Farm Bill, and Secretary Vilsack highlighted the need for passage of a comprehensive, long-term Food, Farm and Jobs Bill to continue groundbreaking agricultural research across the nation.
"Infestations of pine and spruce bark beetles have impacted over 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996, and a changing climate threatens to expand the threat from bark beetle on our forest lands," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "As we take steps to fight the bark beetle, this innovative research will help take the biomass that results from bark beetle infestation and create clean, renewable energy that holds potential for job creation and promises a cleaner future for America. This is yet another reminder of the critical investments provided by the Farm Bill for agricultural research, and I urge Congress to achieve passage of a new, long term Food, Farm and Jobs Bill as soon as possible."
Vilsack noted that the funding for this research is provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – a 2008 Farm Bill program – and reiterated the critical need for passage of a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill that adequately invests in groundbreaking agricultural research.
There are many benefits to using beetle-killed wood for renewable fuel production. It requires no cultivation, circumvents food-versus-fuel concerns and likely has a highly favorable carbon balance. However, there are some challenges that have been a barrier to its widespread use. The wood is typically located far from urban industrial centers, often in relatively inaccessible areas with challenging topography, which increases harvest and transportation costs. In addition to technical barriers, environmental impacts, social issues and local policy constraints to using beetle-killed wood and other forest residues remain largely unexplored.
CSU researchers, together with other scientists from universities, government and private industry in the region, created the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies to address these challenges. The project will undertake comprehensive economic, environmental and social/policy assessment, and integrate research results into a web-based, user-friendly decision support system. CSU will collaborate with partners across four states to complete the project. Partners include: University of Idaho, University of Montana, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, National Renewable Energy Lab and Cool Planet Energy Systems. More information is available on the project website.
Specifically, the team will explore recent advances in scalable thermochemical conversion technologies, which enable the production of advanced liquid biofuel and co-products on-site. The project is working with Cool Planet Energy Systems, which is based out of Greenwood Village, Colorado. The company's prototype pyrolysis system can be tailored to the amount of feedstock available and thus can be deployed in close proximity to stands of beetle-killed timber. This localized production leads to significantly lower costs related to wood harvest and transportation. Their distributed scalable biorefinery approach is a key element in making the use of insect-damaged trees as feedstock plausible.
As a NIFA Coordinated Agricultural Project, this grant brings together teams of researchers that represent various geographic areas to support discovery, applications and promote communication leading to innovative, science-based solutions to critical and emerging national priorities and needs. This year's awards broaden NIFA's CAP bioenergy portfolio, which includes six projects awarded since 2010 focusing on woody biomass, switchgrass and perennial grasses, energy cane and sorghum.
NIFA made the awards through The AFRI Sustainable Bioenergy challenge area, which targets the development of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and biobased products that contribute significantly to reducing dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are compatible with existing agricultural and forest production systems. All grants are awarded over a period of five years, with continued funding contingent on annual project success.
AFRI is NIFA's flagship competitive grant program and was established under the 2008 Farm Bill. AFRI supports work in six priority areas: 1) plant health and production and plant products; 2) animal health and production and animal products; 3) food safety, nutrition and health; 4) renewable energy, natural resources and environment; 5) agriculture systems and technology; and 6) agriculture economics and rural communities.
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future.