From Beetle Kill to Biofuels and Beyond
A five-year, multimillion-dollar grant is shedding light on best management practices—and uses—for Rocky Mountain forests damaged by bark beetles.
By Micaela Myers
Drive up State Highway 130 through the Snowy Range west of Laramie—or virtually any forested area in the Rocky Mountains—and you’ll see the tell-tale signs of bark beetle infestation. The brown of dead trees, even in the height of summer, marks the hillsides in all directions. In an attempt to keep the forest safe for visitors, some of the dead trees are gathered and piled along the roadway, but the Forest Service can’t keep up with the pace of the epidemic. Since 1996, about 42 million acres of U.S. forests have been affected.
Can those dead trees be turned into something useful? What are the challenges in such a process? Funded by a five-year, $10 million grant in 2013 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture/Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR) set out to study those questions.
Focusing on Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Montana, BANR brings together scientists, educators and extension specialists from five universities, plus government agencies, to work with industry and develop a comprehensive program addressing the major challenges that limit the use of insect-killed trees as a feedstock for the production of biofuels and biochar. Partners include the University of Wyoming, Colorado State University, Montana State University, the University of Montana, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cool Planet and Confluence Energy. The university partners formed teams studying feedstock supply, logistics and processing, system performance and sustainability, education and extension, and health and safety.
At UW, Dan Tinker, UW Department of Botany associate professor, is the task leader for the study’s ecological assessment component; Anthropology Professor Sarah Strauss leads an assessment of social science, health and safety issues and monitors community input; Extension Educator Justina Russell is part of the extension and education team tasked with disseminating information and findings from the project; and Science and Mathematics Teaching Center Coordinator Sylvia Parker is collaborating to develop education programs that will infuse bioenergy-related topics into elementary to college-level science courses.
One of BANR’s main industry partners, Cool Planet, was founded in 2009 to commercialize a technology that produces engineered biocarbon and renewable fuel from biomass. Cool Planet’s technology includes a modular system to establish a conversion plant near where the dead trees are harvested, rather than requiring long-distance shipping. The process reproduces high-octane gasoline, plus a byproduct called biochar, which enhances soil structure and can be used to sequester carbon dioxide. The company is testing which parts of the trees can best be used.
Tinker says that a life cycle assessment will be an important part of the overall BANR research: “Are we going to create more carbon than we’re saving by creating this biofuel, or are we going to be carbon neutral? A lot of the data that we’re collecting will inform that model.”
While low gas prices hamper the cost-effectiveness of producing new biofuels, the biochar byproduct Cool Planet sells, called Cool Terra, is already finding a market. “Biochar is basically a soil amendment,” Strauss says. “It’s a charcoal product that helps crops to increase water retention and potentially enhance productivity.”
Colorado-based Confluence Energy is one of the largest wood pellet manufacturers in the western United States and another BANR industry partner. “We’re looking at other ways to use all that beetle kill and biomass,” Strauss says. These include wood pellets and board timber.
“As always for Wyoming, we need to be thinking about ways to diversify our economy,” she says.
The BANR grant includes extension and outreach components. Parker and her team have been working with K–12 teachers for the past three years. Beetle kill is a problem the region’s children see firsthand and one they can help solve.
“It’s a great example of the opportunity to take advantage of what’s around you to really inquire and learn,” Parker says. “This project also enables teachers to be involved with the scientists who are really on the cutting edge.”
The results will be made available to other teachers, Parker says: “We are putting out a website, and we have a framework for where these concepts fit in to different types of curricula.”
Meanwhile, the outreach team Russell works on will help share the BANR research with the public. “Right now we’re working on several videos related to the project,” she says. She is also planning Wyoming workshops that will be open to the public.
With two years left of the project, there’s still much data to analyze, but the researchers agree that one outcome will be a better understanding of our Rocky Mountain forests.