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UM News
November 06, 2013

MISSOULA – The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Nov. 6 that it has awarded nearly $10 million to an academic, industry and government consortium to study the major challenges in using insect-killed trees as a sustainable feedstock for bioenergy. The award was made by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The University of Montana will receive more than $1 million over five years to help study the issues related to using forest residue, including beetle-kill trees, as a feedstock in biofuel production.

UM College of Forestry and Conservation Associate Professor of Forest Operations Woodam Chung will lead the group of scientists studying the logistics of harvesting, collecting and transporting underused forest biomass to a biofuel production facility. He and his research team, which includes UM graduate students, will look at cost, machine productivity, infrastructure needs, pretreatment requirements and other factors in getting biomass from the forests to a facility.

He’ll develop research sites in Montana, Idaho and Colorado to look closely at the specifics of biomass removal as part of timber management and forest restoration activities.

“We’ll test a range of feedstocks for their quality of biofuels output, perform field studies on feedstock logistics and then develop economic models to estimate the cost of using those feedstocks,” Chung said, noting that they’re looking mainly at feedstock not destined for another timber market and want to complement existing forest product industry.

Beth Covitt, research assistant professor in UM’s Environmental Studies program and a project co-principal investigator, will collaborate with the education team. Education activities derived from the project will reach K-12 students and teachers and university students. The education team will develop middle- and high school-level science units addressing “Next Generation Science Standards” related to biomass, carbon cycling and human energy systems. Additional education activities will include middle and high school teacher professional development, teacher and undergraduate research experiences and online bioenergy courses that aim to integrate findings from the project’s research.

“The educational opportunities that the project provides will help prepare residents of the Rocky Mountain West to make better informed decisions about our energy systems in the coming decades,” Covitt said.

“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 U.S. Department of 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.”

A team of university researchers, led by Colorado State University, along with government and private industry in the Rockies region, created the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies to address the challenges of widespread fuel production. Those include distance from urban industrial centers and some environmental, social and policy constraints to using beetle-kill and other forest residues. Other scientists will first determine where and how much of underused forest biomass is available as potential feedstock for biofuels.

James Burchfield, dean of UM’s College of Forestry and Conservation, said, “Biofuels derived from wood from Montana’s forests offer a tremendous opportunity to develop renewable energy, provide jobs and assist in the management of forests that sustain Montana’s quality of life.” 

The project will undertake comprehensive economic, environmental and social/policy assessments and integrate research results into a Web-based user-friendly system. 

UM is collaborating with partners across four states to complete the project. They are Colorado State University, the University of Idaho, Montana State University, the University of Wyoming, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, the National Renewable Energy Lab and Cool Planet Energy Systems. For more information, visit http://banr.colostate.edu/.

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Contact: James Burchfield, dean, UM College of Forestry and Conservation, 406-243-5521, james.burchfield@umontana.edu.