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USDA awards nearly $10M for research on using beetle-killed trees as feedstock for on-site thermochemical conversion technologies

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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. 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.

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.

The project is working with Cool Planet Energy Systems, which is based out of Greenwood Village, Colorado. The company’s prototype pyrolysis system (earlier post) 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.

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.

Infestations of pine and spruce bark beetles have impacted more than 42 million acres of US forests since 1996, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack noted that the funding for this research is provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI)—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.

As a NIFA Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP), 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.



Good idea, burnt forest could be inlcuded?


YES! I have been advocating this for more than a decade.


Clean pyrolysis feedstocks like wood can be done very simply and on very small scales. Other feed stock sources like plastic water bottles (PE or PP- not things that contain Cl or S) also work. Both result in a crude oil type organic liquid mixture and some carbon, which is worth something in itself. However, an individual can do this. You don't need a lot of expensive equipment and thus potentially someone could design and build a small system that individuals can use to product a fuel oil or diesel like material and some lighter and oxygenated materials, plus the carbon. If corporations were to do this work it would soon become apparent that it is not a difficult technology and many people would do it themselves. So this technology goes in with Electric vehicles and solar and fuel cells and solar as simple technologies that could make individuals more independent. Which is why it isn't being done, because it is not good for corporations. Although, I plan to do it myself, and I encourage others to do the same. I plan to use garbage as a feedstock.


Ten million dollars is not much, but developing a portable unit would be useful. They tried a USDA contract under Clinton but there were NO bidders. It was not cost effective with 20 dollar per barrel oil at the time.


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