USDA announces sixth grant to develop advanced biofuels

By Holly Jessen | October 16, 2012

The USDA announced a five-year, $10 million grant has been awarded to research shrub willow, switchgrass and miscanthus grown on marginal and abandoned lands, such as reclaimed mine sites, in the Northeast.

This is the sixth grant awarded through USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which is working to develop regional renewable energy markets to create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Five other regional systems were previously formed in the Pacific Northwest, the Northwest, Northern states, Southern states, and the Southeast. “This will basically complete our efforts in every corner of the country as part of our overall effort to promote biofuel, both in terms of automobiles and truck transportation as well as aviation and marine fuel,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during an Oct. 16 conference call.

The grants are in line with other USDA efforts, he said, such as funding awarded to build biorefineries, production of alternative feedstocks through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program and more. “Over the last couple of years, we at USDA have made a concerted effort to try to create a research program support structure focused on biofuels and determine alternative feedstocks to corn-based ethanol,” he added.

A team of researchers from 20 universities, organizations and companies will be led by Pennsylvania State University’s Tom Richard, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering and director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, or NEWBio, will develop perennial feedstock production systems and supply chains for shrub willow, a short roation woody crop, and warm-season grasses switchgrass and miscanthus. The Northeast has more than 3 million acres of marginal, degraded and abandoned land that could become sources for biomass, Richard said in a Penn State press release.  

NEWBio will be made up of four large demonstration projects to produce biomass at commercial scale. The thousands of acres grown will produce 500 to 1,200 tons per day of lignocellulosic biomass suitable for the manufacture of advanced transportation fuels.

It’s believed that the energy crops could play a big role in creating a sustainable bioenergy future in the Northeast. "This region encompasses less than 10 percent of the land area of the United States yet is home to over 20 percent of its population," he said. "Although it includes four of the 11 largest metropolitan regions in the nation, the landscape is dominated by rural communities suffering from decades of decline. Biomass energy could provide the social, economic and ecological drivers for a sustainable rural renaissance."

Additional consortium members and collaborators are:

1. Cornell University

2. State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

3. West Virginia University

4. Delaware State University

5. Ohio State University

6. Rutgers University

7. Drexel University

8. University of Vermont

9. USDA Agricultural Research Service's Eastern Regional Research Center

10. U.S. DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory

11. Idaho National Laboratory

12. Aloterra Energy

13. American Refining Group

14. Case New Holland

15. Double A Willow

16. Ernst Conservation Seeds

17. Mascoma Corp.

18. Praxair

19. Primus Green Energy

20. Terra Green Energy