Oct. 17, 2012

Cornell plays big role in Northeast biofuel project

With climate change and high oil prices, alternate fuel sources are more important than ever for a more sustainable future.

Now, Cornell is playing a major role in the Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio), a research and education project led by the Pennsylvania State University that seeks to develop perennial feedstock production systems and supply chains for shrub willow and such warm-season grasses as switchgrass and miscanthus.

The project is funded by a five-year, $9.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture, of which Cornell will receive close to $1 million.

NEWBio will focus on improving biofuels production across human systems, plant cultivation and genetics, and harvest, preprocessing and logistics. Teams will address technical issues while also integrating sustainable systems, safety and health, extension and education, and leadership and evaluation.

Also, NEWBio aims to put tens of thousands of acres of marginal, degraded and abandoned land, such as reclaimed mine sites, to use for growing biofuel crops, thereby avoiding competition for land needed for food production. The project will work to meet the needs of several industry partners.

"Our hope is that we will see expanded cultivation of renewable bioenergy crops that will stimulate rural agricultural economies and production of domestically produced biofuels," said Larry Smart, a Cornell associate professor of horticulture and a co-principal investigator (co-PI) of the project.

Smart added that NEWBio seeks to spur siting and development of biofuels conversion facilities that should lead to new jobs at those sites. "One of the issues in the biofuels industry is a chicken and egg problem," Smart said. "Conversion facilities are hesitant to build without cheap feedstocks, while growers are reluctant to plant in the absence of feedstock markets."

From Cornell, Smart and Don Viands, professor of plant breeding and genetics and a NEWBio co-PI, will work on genetic improvement of bioenergy crops, with Smart focusing on willow and Viands working with switchgrass. They will breed and select new cultivars of these biofuel crops that will use nutrients more efficiently and be more tolerant to poor, low pH and flooded soils in the Northeast, including soils that might be found in reclaimed mine lands.

Corinne Rutzke, director of the Bioenergy and Bioproducts Education Programs (BBEP) at Cornell and a NEWBio co-PI, will expand BBEP programs to develop curricula to train educators in bioenergy and bioproducts to include Pennsylvania and West Virginia. BBEP offers workshops in New York, Ohio, Delaware and Maryland.

And Peter Woodbury, a senior research associate in crop and soil sciences and a co-PI, will develop models to predict the yield potential of bioenergy crops in the Northeast to assist in the life cycle analysis of the sustainability of the project.

Along with Cornell and Penn State, consortium partners include State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, West Virginia University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Drexel University, University of Vermont, USDA-Agricultural Research Station's Eastern Regional Research Center, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

Tom Richard, a Penn State professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, is NEWBio's principal investigator.