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Trees killed by bark beetles have, for years, been a source of fuel for forest fires. Now, those very trees are being turned into biofuel and biobased products.
This vast bioenergy resource—approximately 46 million acres—requires no cultivation, circumvents food-versus-fuel concerns, and may have a highly favorable carbon balance compared other forestry feedstocks. The problem, however, is that beetle-killed biomass is typically located far from urban industrial centers in relatively inaccessible areas, which means transportation costs are a key barrier to widespread utilization of this vast resource.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports seven regional integrated Coordinated Agricultural Projects (CAPs) that develop regional systems for the sustainable production of advanced biofuels and biobased products. The regional systems focus on non-food dedicated biomass feedstocks such as perennial grasses, sorghum, energy cane, oilseed crops, and woody biomass.
One such program, the Sustainable Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR), is led by Colorado State University. BANR brings together scientists, educators, and extension specialists from universities and government agencies to work with industry partners to address the major challenges that impact economical and sustainable utilization of insect-killed trees for the production of biofuels and biochar.
Because collecting beetle-killed trees is more of a salvage operation than a harvest, BANR has created teams to address the various challenges. The first order of business is locating the feedstock, which BANR does through various sensing approaches. They will also develop models to predict future beetle infestations. Another team is tackling the logistical problems of harvesting, collecting, transporting, and storing the raw biomass without negatively impacting natural forest regeneration and water resources. Specifically, goals for this aspect of the operation include benchmarking the performance of equipment used to harvest, process, and deliver beetle-killed trees, and then optimize the logistics for site conditions, specific end uses, and facility locations.
Education is also high on the list of program priorities. BANR’s education team is developing middle and high school science units that focus on bioenergy; professional development for K-12 teachers; research opportunities for K-12 teachers and undergraduate students; and online coursework for undergrads, graduate students, and K-12 teachers.
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. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.