The US Department of Agriculture has awarded almost $10 million to a consortium of academic, industry and government organizations led by Colorado State University to research using insect-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable feedstock for biofuel.
Other organizations involved with the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies project include small-scale bio-refinery developer Cool Planet Energy Systems, Colorado State Forest Service, the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, University of Wyoming, University of Montana, Montana State University, University of Idaho and the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Bark beetles have infested more than 42 million acres of timber (pictured) since 1996 with more than half of the infestation being in Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In addition, wood from thinning for fire control and forest restoration in national forests is currently costly to manage and often burned in place of disposal.
Congress did not anticipate this when passing the Renewable Fuels Standard, so the project will investigate the policy implications, and inform a broad group of environmental and government stakeholders on the benefits of approving this feedstock for use in bioenergy applications. As well as creating renewable energy, using such wood as feedstock has the potential to create jobs, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
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. Cool Planet’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. The company’s distributed, scalable biorefinery approach is a key element in making the use of insect-damaged trees as feedstock plausible, the USDA says.
The project will begin work by the end of 2013, with assessing beetle-kill feedstock availability and how to harvest and process the material in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner, while producing high quality renewable fuels and biochar that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to Keith Paustian, BANR’s project director at Colorado State University.