Research to convert beetle-killed trees into energy

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it has awarded nearly $10 million to a consortium of academic, industry and government organizations led by Colorado State University (CSU) 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 (AFRI), is part of USDA's effort to develop modern solutions for climate challenges in agriculture and natural resource management. AFRI is provided under the 2008 farm bill. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he hopes funding for research such as this is provided in any new farm bill coming from Congress.

"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 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.

USDA noted 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 (BANR) 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 at banr.colostate.edu.

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, Colo. 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.


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