Researchers win grant to assess impact of bioenergy projects

By Luke Geiver | September 11, 2012

A team of researchers will spend the next five years assessing the social, economic and ecological impacts of bioenergy projects happening in Michigan, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Led by Michigan Tech University Professor Kathy Halvorsen, the team consists of 33 researchers who will “take a hard look at what the impacts are,” according to Halvorsen.

The project, made possible by a $4.81 million National Science Foundation grant, will allow Halvorsen and her team to spend time gathering hydrology reports, community feedback and economic impact assessments for 2-3 years before a 2 year projected data analysis time period starts. The team has already pinpointed certain geographical regions in the four research areas, and each region will focus on different bioenergy application approaches. “We chose a state or a sub-state area,” Halvorsen said, “areas where we knew there was new biofuel development.”

In the U.S., the team will focus on Frontier Renewable Resources, a cellulosic ethanol production facility owned by Mascoma Corp in conjunction with J.M. Longyear. In Mexico, a set of researchers will work in the Yucatan Peninsula, looking at the impact of a jatropha plantation operated in part by UOP. “We have actually already gone down there and toured the plantation,” she said. In Argentina, the team will look at eucalyptus used for biodiesel, and in Brazil, the team will focus on the impacts of forest acres repurposed for soy beans and sugarcane.

The ecological team will spend an entire year in each country before moving on, searching for sustainability indicators that can be used in policy-based decisions. The socioeconomic teams will collect data from the local communities, interested local parties and others. The goal of the research is to provide decision-makers with the information needed to both understand current bioenergy production approaches, and which approaches might offer greater regional sustainability or economic value. Halvorsen, who has experience in both biofuels and policy, hopes the process will allow the same core group of researchers who previously worked on cellulosic biofuels and an initiative known as wood-to-wheels, will end up providing the same value and quality recommendations the team has given on past research.

“We have a really great group,” she said, “we like to say that when NSF issues a call for proposals in the sustainability realm and bioenergy, they know that they are going to get a competitive proposal of us.”

The research team includes 15 members from Michigan Tech.