Bioenergy research continues march toward energy independence

By University of Tennessee | September 04, 2014

Many scientists say the next step in the march toward U.S. energy independence is utilizing fast growing, short rotation woody crops (SRWC) as a biomass source for energy and fuel. In September, October and November the Southeastern Partnership for Integrated Biomass Supply Systems will take to the road to show off research progress of the regional partnership, which is focused on biofuels production centered in the Southeast. 

Coordinated by the University of Tennessee Center for Renewable Carbon, and including research partners Auburn University, North Carolina State University, ArborGen, Inc. and the University of Georgia, the IBSS tour will feature Auburn’s tractor-trailer scale mobile biomass gasifier. During the tour, the gasifier will demonstrate how to turn biomass into electricity on a small scale.

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the tour will stop in Columbus, Mississippi, for an IBSS/Advanced Hardwood Biofuels (AHB) Field Day. Based on two years of successful experiments in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest with fast-growing cottonwood and hybrid poplars, IBSS, AHB, GreenWood Resources, and ArborGen have partnered to establish a 70-acre hybrid poplar plantation. Mississippi State University has also been an integral partner throughout the process, assisting in research and helping with field day activities. At this stop, visitors will get a close-up view of the SRWC system and learn about new research on genetics, stand establishment, disease problems, wildlife impacts and biomass harvesting logistics.

On Friday, Oct. 10, the tour will stop at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Knoxville for a half-day Woody Crops Field Day. Visitors to the event will learn first-hand about new energy crops like fast-growing hybrid poplar and their importance as a feedstock for the emerging biofuels industry. This event will coincide with the IBSS Annual Meeting, so many experts will be on hand to answer questions about bioenergy production.

Stops are also planned for Sept. 13 at Auburn’s Ag Discovery Day and Nov. 19 at the Alabama Joint Leadership Development Conference .

Advanced registration is required for the Columbus, Mississippi., and Knoxville, Tennessee, events; however, admission is free. Also, lunch is provided. To reserve your space and your meal, please email Jessica McCord, [email protected]. Send your name and tour location by Sept. 19. Details about each event can be found online at the IBSS website.

The IBSS Partnership has also been involved in research to develop drop-in liquid fuels, such as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for use as a replacement for grain (corn)-based ethanol. The project produced some 1500 gallons of a “green” diesel fuel from Southeastern-produced pine and poplar biomass and technology provided in part by industrial research partners.

Tim Rials, director of the UT Center for Renewable Carbon and a biochemist, contends that the U.S. should invest in the Southeast for the production of biofuels. “Our region can produce a variety of biomass feedstocks including dedicated crops such as switchgrass and sorghum, along with dedicated woody crops and forest residues,” he said. 

The goal of the IBSS partnership is to demonstrate the production of advanced biofuels from sustainable sources of lignocellulosic biomass. Initially, the partnership has focused its efforts on perennial switchgrass and short-rotation woody crops like eucalyptus and poplar. Rials said each dedicated crop has inherent performance and cost advantages for specific conversion technologies. “We are working to match the economic and environmental performance of each feedstock with a preferred conversion platform so that the ultimate product, the particular biobased fuel, will be reliable, available and affordable.”

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the IBSS Partnership is also charged with developing educational efforts to help prepare future workforce participants to contribute to the growth and sustainability of a new bioenergy industry in the Southeast. The IBSS mobile tour is part of an effort to make the public, including landowners, aware of the science involved in biofuels development and the potential benefits of biofuels to society.

The IBSS Partnership is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-30410 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The UT Center for Renewable Carbon is a program of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The UT Institute of Agriculture provides instruction, research and public service through the UT College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, UT AgResearch, including its system of 10 AgResearch and Education centers, and UT Extension offices in every county in the state.