The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Nov. 6 that it has awarded nearly $10 million to an academic, industry, and government consortium led by Colorado State University to study the major challenges limiting the use of insect-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable feedstock for bioenergy. The award was made by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“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.”

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 widespread use. It 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-kill wood and other forest residues remain largely unexplored.

“We thank the USDA for seeing the value in this CSU-led project that will turn beetle-kill wood into renewable fuels,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “Through the development of innovative technology and other solutions, this initiative will help improve forest health, create jobs and reduce the risk of intense, catastrophic wildfires. Under this grant, Colorado-based members of the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies – Colorado State University, the Colorado Forest Service at CSU and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – along with industry partner Cool Planet, will now demonstrate a solution to this problem.”

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.

“Utilization of the beetle-kill wood and other waste biomass from forest thinning and fire hazard reduction has great potential for biofuel production,” said Keith Paustian, professor at CSU and BANR project director. “However, we need to carefully assess both the economics and environmental impacts to maximize the benefits to local communities and the country as a whole.”

Much of the project revolves around feedstock availability inventory and modeling, sustainable feedstock removal practices, transport and processing, and use of the biochar co-product resulting from the pyrolysis of biomass to produce “drop-in” transportation fuels. The project will undertake comprehensive economic, environmental, and social/policy assessment, and integrate research results into a web-based user-friendly decision support system.

“Many of our western forests could benefit from treatments to restore their capacity to absorb and recover from disturbances, but a limiting factor is the economics,” said Tony Cheng, CSU professor of Forestry, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute and BANR team member. “Developing economically viable uses of wood while restoring forest resilience is a real, pressing need.”

The ability to convert waste biomass into high-octane liquid fuel that can be directly blended with conventional gasoline could provide that economic value. In addition, according to Francesca Cotrufo, CSU professor of Soil and Crop Sciences and one of the project’s lead investigators, “using the biochar co-product from the fuel production as a soil amendment for dryland agriculture and high value crops like peach orchards can increase economic returns for farmers, while improving environmental quality and enhancing the overall sustainability of the biofuel production system.”

Specifically, the team will explore the potential for scalable thermochemical conversion of beetle-kill wood to advanced liquid biofuels and co-products. The project is working with Cool Planet Energy Systems, based in 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.

“Our technology is being commercially deployed today to convert southern pine into biofuels and biochar. The BANR grant will allow us to apply what we learn to the efficient and affordable conversion of beetle-kill pine into the same high octane, drop-in fuels and soil enhancing biochar products,” said Cool Planet CEO, Howard Janzen.

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 http://banr.colostate.edu/.

As a NIFA Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP), this grant brings together teams of researchers that represent various geographic areas to support discovery, applications and 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.

“This project has enormous potential benefits for Colorado and all western states where forests have been devastated by the ravages of beetle-kill,” said Colorado State President Tony Frank. “We’re grateful to the USDA for recognizing the important economic and environmental questions at stake here and the unique combination of strengths we’ve been able to draw together in this research consortium, thanks to the collaboration and vision of Dr. Paustian and his research partners.”

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