Montana State University

MSU part of consortium receiving $10 million to investigate turning dead trees into biofuel

November 6, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Bark beetles, such as this one near Helena, have caused widespread damage in Montana and throughout the Rockies in the past decade. (Photo courtesy of Peter Kolb, MSU Extension Forestry). Beetle-killed forests, such as this one in the East Garnet Range of Montana, are at increased risk for fires. (Photo courtesy of Peter Kolb, MSU Extension Forestry).

Bark beetles, such as this one near Helena, have caused widespread damage in Montana and throughout the Rockies in the past decade. (Photo courtesy of Peter Kolb, MSU Extension Forestry).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – A four-state team involving Montana State University has been awarded nearly $10 million to investigate the challenges of turning beetle-killed trees into biofuel.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the award today, Nov. 6, saying it would allow an academic, industry and government consortium led by Colorado State University to study the major challenges that limit the use of beetle-killed trees in the Rockies as biofuel. MSU’s portion will be almost $663,500.

“Insect infestations have caused widespread forest mortality during the past decade in Montana and throughout the Rockies,” said Rick Lawrence, MSU professor and director of the Spatial Sciences Center. “The dead trees in many cases cannot be utilized economically, while at the same time posing a hazard, such as potentially increased fire risk.” 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that infestations of pine and spruce bark beetles have impacted more than 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996 and a changing climate threatens to expand the threat from bark beetle.

“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. “This is yet another reminder of the critical investments provided by the Farm Bill for agricultural research, and I urge Congress to achieve passage of a new, long term Food, Farm and Jobs Bill as soon as possible.”

MSU has two roles in the newly funded project, Lawrence said. He will be responsible for mapping dead trees throughout the northern Rockies to help determine how much beetle-killed wood is available for biofuel. He will also develop tools so scientists can rapidly detect outbreaks that will produce more dead wood. His work will involve ground surveys, remote sensing, geographic information systems and spatial modeling. He will help evaluate the history, current extent and logistics of using beetle-killed trees for biofuel.

MSU Extension Forestry Specialist Peter Kolb will work with rural landowners, resource managers and communities to examine the practicality and ecological sustainability of woody debris acquisition and refinery locations. As forestry specialist and associate professor of forest ecology and management, Kolb said he helps professionals, producers and landowners incorporate the latest well-reviewed science, solve resource-related problems and remain economically competitive and ecologically sustainable.

Thrilled that the grant was awarded, Kolb said, “Developing a realistic economically viable market that provides an alternative liquid fuel from what is currently mostly a waste product is a highly worthwhile project. This would help sustain our loggers, forest landowners and mill infrastructure by helping them increase efficiency and make money out of what is now a cost.

“The forest resources that exist across Montana are staggering when you consider materials that are currently a fire hazard such as enormous volumes of wildfire and beetle-killed trees, non-useable woody debris left over from logging, and excessively dense forests resulting from the abnormally long cool-wet climatic period Montana experienced from 1940-1980 along with wildfire suppression,” Kolb added.

Collaborators on the project said that converting beetle-killed wood into renewable fuel has many benefits. It requires no cultivation, for example. It circumvents food-versus-fuel concerns and probably has a highly favorable carbon balance.

However, challenges currently prevent widespread use. The beetle-killed trees are typically far from urban industrial centers and usually in steep mountainous terrain accessible only by narrow logging roads. Other barriers include the potential for environmental impacts, social issues and local policies about using beetle-killed wood and other forest residues.

MSU researchers, together with other scientists involved in the project, created the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR) to address those challenges.

“The potential outcomes from the BANR grant could help our wood products infrastructure remain competitive on a world market and help conserve Montana forests by providing an economically viable means of minimizing climate change-induced effects such as massive wildfires, insect pest outbreaks that can result in an overall loss of forested landscapes, quality watersheds, and conversion from forests to shrubfields and grasslands,” Kolb said.

Lawrence said, “We will be working with a company named Cool Planet Energy Systems that has developed a system that can convert these trees to biofuels. Because their system can be deployed to the site of the killed trees, this approach has the potential to use these trees economically while helping reduce dependence on fossils fuels.”

Partners in addition to MSU, CSU and Cool Planet Energy Systems are the University of Montana, the University of Idaho, the University of Wyoming, U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and the National Renewable Energy Lab.

The Rocky Mountain project is a Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. NIFA has awarded six CAP grants since 2010. They have focused on woody biomass, switchgrass and perennial grasses, energy cane and sorghum.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or