Efforts to discover and utilize renewable energy have been increasing in the last few years, creating opportunities around the nation, said Jay O’Laughlin, professor in the College of Natural Resources.
Recently a consortium, which includes industry partners such as Cool Planet Energy Systems — a Google venture — and universities like Colorado State and the University of Idaho, received a $10 million USDA research grant. The project funded by the grant aims to find an effective way to use beetle-killed trees as a source for biomass for the creation of biofuel.
“A professor from Colorado State University put together a team consisting of five different universities, plus the U.S. Forest Service, and Cool Planet Energy Systems, to do research on the feasibility of accessing this dead wood in our national forests and converting it into a gasoline substitute,” said O’Laughlin, leader of the University of Idaho branch of the project. “This is a $10 million project, it is a very large research project, and about a million of that will be coming to the University of Idaho.”
O’Laughlin said they chose to use trees killed by pine beetles, because they are currently of little use and serve as fuel for forest fires. He said beetle-killed trees are a problem in the national forests of many western states, prompting USDA intervention and funding of such research.
“The USDA is responsible for the National Forest System which is 8 percent of the land in the United States and over 40 percent of the land in Idaho,” O’Laughlin said. “The USDA is responsible for those lands and many of those lands have been affected by pine beetles, which kill trees. In the past 10 years, 42 million acres of trees have been killed by bark beetles. They are generally small trees of no value, but today it’s basically waste material and ends up being fuel for forest fires.”
O’Laughlin said the project utilizes new technology and scientific processes to turn a would-be waste product into useful fuel.
“The main goal of this project is to take something that is a waste and turn it into a useful resource and a potential replacement for fossil fuels,” O’Laughlin said. “Fossil fuels are fossilized biomass which have spent millions of years under intense heat and pressure, which turns it into the hydrocarbons we burn in our cars or airplanes. We are trying to speed up that process by taking biomass and using a thermal chemical process called fast pyrolysis. Turning it into a liquid biofuel which can be distilled into a gasoline substitute.”
There are many people and groups involved and interested in this project, the goal of which is to change the way resources and energy are utilized.
“One of the investors in Cool Planet Energy Systems is Google. There are also several oil companies invested in this project, it is really exciting to have people with such a large amount of capital involved,” O’Laughlin said. ” I’ve been here at the University of Idaho for 23 years researching just about every kind of natural resource policy there is, I spent 10 years as a professor at Texas A&M before that. So I have spent a lot of time in forestry research, and this is the most exciting project I have ever been involved in.”
Justin Ackerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.