The northeast could help lead the way to a renewable energy-based economy by utilizing marginal agricultural land and reclaimed and abandoned mined land to grow energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast-growing woody plants.

That’s the goal of a new research and education project drawing on West Virginia University expertise and supported by a nearly $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, or NEWBio, led by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, will develop perennial feedstock production systems and supply chains for shrub willow—a short-rotation woody crop—and the warm-season grasses switchgrass and miscanthus. The project will promote the use of marginal farmland and abandoned and reclaimed mine sites so that these crops will not compete for resources with food production.

WVU’s participation will be led by Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Other WVU scholars involved in the project are: Stephen DiFazio, associate professor of biology in WVU’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Shawn Grushecky, associate director of the Appalachian Hardwood Center and Jeffrey Skousen, professor of soil science in the Davis College’s Division of Plant and Soil Sciences and land reclamation specialist with the WVU Extension Service.

“Feedstock development and biomass logistics are the key to the success of biofuel production,” Wang said. “This project is aimed at overcoming existing barriers and dramatically increasing the sustainable, cost-effective supply of lignocellulosic biomass, and will help promote the regional research collaborations on sustainable bioenergy in the northeast.”

“The project also addresses the need to develop regional biomass energy sources that are critically important to both our region and the nation as a whole,” said Fred King-, interim vice president for Research and Economic Development at WVU.

“It is a privilege for us to be involved with the NEWBio initiative,” Wang said. “The State of West Virginia and WVU are crucial players in developing a biomass industry on reclaimed mined lands in this region. We look forward to finding additional partners including landowners, farmers, coal operators and equipment manufacturers in establishing biomass as a potential fuel.”

This is the sixth such award made through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs, and decreasing America’s dependence on foreign oil. In September 2011, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced five major Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grants for the formation of five regional systems in the Pacific Northwest, the northwest, northern states, southern states and the southeast, valued at $136 million.

“The creation of this biofuel system will significantly contribute to improving rural prosperity and job creation in the northeast by funding effective public- and private-sector partnerships,” Vilsack said. “Overall, the six regional systems supported by USDA and the Obama Administration represent an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry.”

Consortium partners include Cornell University, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Drexel University, University of Vermont, USDA-ARS’s Eastern Regional Research Center and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

Spanning from New England to West Virginia, the project also will engage state and local agencies, citizen groups, environmental and economic development organizations, and companies in fields such as crop genetics and fuel manufacturing and use.

Among key industrial collaborators are Alloterra Energy, American Refining Group, Case New Holland, DoubleAWillow, Ernst Conservation Seeds, Mascoma, Praxair, Primus Green Energy and Terra Green Energy.

NEWBio will center on four large demonstration projects, each with biomass production and supply chains operating at commercial scales of thousands of acres. The projects will be geared to produce from 500 to 1,200 tons per day of lignocellulosic biomass suitable for manufacturing advanced transportation fuels.

NEWBio will address technical issues in three areas: human systems; plant production and genetics; and harvest, preprocessing and logistics. Integrated with these technical thrusts will be teams looking at sustainability systems, safety and health, extension and educational programs and leadership and evaluation.

Researchers involved in the project include plant scientists, agricultural and biological engineers, forest scientists, agricultural safety and health specialists, agronomists, agricultural economists, rural sociologists, supply chain and business development experts and extension educators.



CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design

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