A study led by CSU was recently awarded a $10 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the purpose of studying the challenges limiting insect-killed trees for being used as a source of bioenergy.
“Biofuels are a renewable energy source that displace fossil fuels,” said Keith Paustian, project director and soil and crop sciences professor. “Primarily because of the issues of climate change, we need to find alternatives to fossil fuels.”
According to Paustian, the main biofuel being made is corn ethanol, but there is a push by the USDA to find new sources of renewable energy. There is a large supply of dead or dying trees that are a potential source in the Rocky Mountains.
“The objective here is to look at things other than food grains. Biofuels are derived from the plant itself — the cellulosic fuels,” Paustian said. “The objective is to look at different sources of feedstocks. Ours is a little unique in that it is looking at the beetle kill that we have here in the Rockies.”
One of the things they are looking at is whether or not the biomass can be used for something that would be productive in the sense that it pays for its own removal from the forest, according to Paustian. He said that if it’s not removed, the biomass produces a high fire hazard.
“The project is asking big questions and tying together the major components around ecological systems,” said Tony Cheng, project researcher of policy analysis and socioeconomics. “We are finding out what the best way of doing it is.”
The research teams are aiming for a “win-win-win” situation, according to Cheng. This would include a project yield that is will be all-around beneficial for the ecosystem, production of renewable energy that is carbon neutral and the creation of sustainable jobs in the community.
Paustian said that the trees in the Rocky Mountains have been killed as a result of an insect known as a bark beetle. This bug burrows underneath the bark of a tree to lay its eggs. When the larva hatch they eat through the cambium of the tree. After the cambium is gone, the tree cannot receive proper nutrition and will die. This process is known as ‘girdling’.
“It essentially strangles the tree,” Paustian said.
According to Cheng, the researchers are essentially starting this project from scratch.
“There is a really important issue: how and if we can use the enormous amount of beetle kill wood to benefit society,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund. “It is a challenge, and it is a big challenge.”
The questions the researchers are asking are how much biomass there is, the most cost effective and environmentally friendly ways to get rid of it, environmental impact, issues with policy and what educational opportunities are present.
“I think the benefits can be that we improve forest health, reduce risk for high intensity wildfire, and, of course, address climate change by accessing fuels that are produced by the biomass,” Paustian said. “I think we are really coming at this very open minded. We are finding out what makes sense.”
The project is currently in the planning stage and, according to Paustian, the team should be out working in the field as soon as the summer of 2014.
“A lot of us come in with a healthy skepticism, but we also have this optimism,” Cheng said. “We are motivated by possibilities. I’m confident we are going to learn a lot.”
Collegian ASCSU Beat Reporter Stephanie Mason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.