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Researchers, Partners Receive USDA Grant to Convert Beetle-Killed Trees into Biofuel

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that it has awarded nearly $10 million to an academic, industry, and government consortium – including researchers at the University of Idaho – to study the major challenges limiting the use of insect-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable resource for bioenergy.

by University of Idaho
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MOSCOW, Idaho – Nov. 6, 2013 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Nov. 6 that it has awarded nearly $10 million to an academic, industry, and government consortium – including researchers at the University of Idaho – to study the major challenges limiting the use of insect-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable resource for bioenergy. The award was made by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA.

“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.”

“The key idea in this project is to create a new industry,” said Jay O’Laughin, the University of Idaho team leader on the project and director of the Policy Analysis Group in the UI College of Natural Resources. “It’s very exciting, because we’re going to take something that’s basically a waste and turn it into a resource.”

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.

The project, which is led by Colorado State University, brings together scientists from universities, government and private industry in the region to create the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies, or BANR, to address these challenges. Four UI researchers are involved.

O’Laughlin will take the lead on the project’s policy and socioeconomic issues. Rob Keefe, assistant professor of forest operations, will focus on efficient ways to remove wood resources from the land. Mark Coleman, associate professor of forest, rangeland and fire sciences, will study whether using biochar – an additional product of the bioenergy process – can boost tree nutrition. Randall Brooks, a forestry specialist for UI Extension, will take on the project’s education and extension components.

“The BANR university-industry collaboration is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary effort that spans the vast Rocky Mountain landscape,” said Kurt Pregitzer, dean of the UI College of Natural Resources.

“Converting some of the dead lodgepole pine wood into biofuel will help offset the use of fossil fuels and create economic growth.”

The project will undertake comprehensive economic, environmental, and social/policy assessment, and integrate research results into a web-based, user-friendly decision support system.

“This project allows the University of Idaho to contribute the latest research toward helping a vital industry in our state and region to create new value from forest products,” said Jack McIver, UI’s vice president for research and economic development. “We are excited to build this alliance and contribute to formation of the practical solutions that will emerge from it.”

The BANR team is working with Cool Planet Energy Systems, which is based out of Greenwood Village, Colo. The company’s prototype pyrolysis system can be tailored to the amount of wood resources 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 a biofuel resource 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.

Collaborators in addition to UI and Colorado State are 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.

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 broadens NIFA’s CAP bioenergy portfolio, that includes six projects awarded since 2010 focusing on woody biomass, switchgrass and perennial grasses, energy cane and sorghum.

NIFA made the awards through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) funding opportunity. AFRI’s Sustainable Bioenergy challenge area 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 five-year period, with continued funding contingent on annual project success.

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. More information is available at:

For more information about the BANR project, visit