Utah State University approves bioenergy center

By Erin Voegele | April 11, 2011

Utah State University is home to a new bioenergy center. The University’s Board of Trustees recently approved the USU Extension Center for Agronomic and Woody Biofuels. The center will provide the organizational structure to support current research and extensive activities related to using plants for food, feed, fiber and reclamation, known as agronomic science and technology. Research at the center will support crops and their conversion into biofuels, both within Utah and around the nation.

According to USU Extension bioenergy agronomist and the center’s director Dallas Hanks, the center will serve as the umbrella for four ongoing bioenergy research projects, including the FreeWays-to-Fuel project, the Utah Biomass Resources Group, the Urban Farming and Fuel project, and a Department of Defense-funded feedstock project. Additional research projects are expected to be developed under the center in the future.

The FreeWays-to-Fuel project involves the research and development of nontraditional agronomic lands, Hanks said. This includes areas like roadsides, military installations, airports, railroad rights-of-way and land around power lines. “These are things that we’ve never really considered in agriculture as being usable in the past, but feel like it could maybe be useful in terms of growing some biofuel feedstocks,” Hanks said. In Utah, the project is currently focused on biodiesel feedstock production. “We have chosen to go with biodiesel because it’s the only advanced biofuel out there that qualifies under RFS2 as an advanced biofuel,” Hanks said. “As soon as the other advanced biofuels come on board and get improved, and the technology advances, we’ll have the platform to switch to them as well.”

According to Hanks, about a half a dozen other states have become involved in the project, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan. Oregon, Texas, Washington and Ohio are also gearing up to participate. While some states are focused on biodiesel feedstocks, others are investigating the cultivation of cellulosic feedstocks on nontraditional agricultural lands. Hanks said that these lands could represent an opportunity to bring 5 to 10 million acres of additional feedstock production online.

While the FreeWays-to-Fuel project focuses on agricultural development, the Utah Biomass Resources Group is investigating the use of woody biomass for energy production. “What we’ve done is we’ve pulled together all of the federal land agencies, federal and state land agencies, that have woody biomass on them, plus private individuals as well, to look at how [our state] can utilize woody biomass grown on these lands for energy production,” Hanks said. The main focus right now is on a species of juniper that is considered to be either an invasive or aggressive species. “It drives out sage brush and affects habitat for certain animals and stuff,” he continued. “Federal and state agencies are very interested in restoring that habitat.”

Alternatively, the Urban Farming and Fuel program is focused on enabling communities to produce their own feedstock for biofuels. The project is investigating the use of land parcels that have been set aside by cities and counties for future development. Parcels currently sitting idle could be used to grow feedstock for biofuels that could help power city and county fleets.

A fourth project, which is funded through a grant from the U.S. Army, aims to assess the potential of growing biofuel feedstock on Army bases. “We will be assessing land on six Army bases,” Hanks said, noting there is potential for these bases to grow their own biofuel feedstock, which could reduce fuel costs and create public benefits.

Before the development of the center, these ongoing projects weren’t housed under a comprehensive university program. “What [the center] will give us is the structure to move these into a more competitive environment in terms of grants, funding and notoriety,” Hanks said. “We hope the center will allow us to gain more national exposure…The other thing that the center gives us is a focal point from which to branch out and network…and start getting partnerships and collaborations formed. We are really big on trying to collaborate and cooperate with other people.”


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