Research Taps Beetle-Kill Wood as Possible Biofuel
A variety of beetle that has killed off millions of acres of trees in the Rocky Mountains is now being tapped as a possible new elixir for converting biomass into high-grade gasoline.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded nearly $10 million to a consortium of academic, industry, and government organizations to research how trees killed by insects in the Rockies could contribute to sustainable feedstock for bioenergy.
Since the mid-1990s, pine and spruce bark beetle infestations have threatened more than 42 million acres of forest in the U.S., said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — and the changing climate may exacerbate this threat.
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“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,” Vilsack said.
The researchers claim that there are many benefits to using the wood from trees devastated by beetles for conversion to biofuel. The upside is this requires no cultivation and — possibly — no dangerous carbon footprint.
The downside is that these beetle infestations are nowhere near urban centers and generally lie in areas that are challenging to access, which translates into high harvesting and transportation costs.
The environmental impact also remains unclear — and unexplored.
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With the USDA funding, the team will explore the potential for scalable thermochemical conversion of beetle-kill wood to advanced liquid biofuels and co-products and undertake comprehensive economic, environmental, and social/policy assessment.
“Utilization of the beetle-kill wood and other waste biomass from forest thinning and fire hazard reduction has great potential for biofuel production,” media cited Keith Paustian, a professor at Colorado State University, which leads the research, as saying. “However, we need to carefully assess both the economics and environmental impacts to maximize the benefits to local communities and the country as a whole.”
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