The Mid-Atlantic region has some 10 million acres of agricultural and mining land that is rich in natural resources but currently underutilized. The area also produces some 8 million dry tons of forest residues from logging operations. Together, these resources provide a foundation for an emerging biomass industry to gain traction in the region.

To help accelerate that industry, the Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass for Value-Added Products Consortium (MASBio) is bringing researchers from five universities in the region together with government agencies and industry leaders to develop a new and sustainable economy of renewable agricultural crop and forest biomass products and materials.

This project will investigate land reclamation, biomass crop production, forest residue utilization, supply chain logistics, and bioproduct development to advance the renewable biomass and bioproducts industries.

Funded by a $10 million competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project includes industry partners as well as researchers from Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, West Virginia State University, Penn State, the State University of New York, the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Chad Bolding, professor of forest operations and engineering in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and a co-principal investigator of the project, will focus on the utilization of forest residues — secondary materials such as branches and treetops left behind after traditional forest products are transported to mills.

“My primary focus is developing cost-effective drying and processing approaches for these residues,” said Bolding, a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “These are low-value materials, so the margins to make them economically feasible are extremely thin.”

One of the challenges of utilizing residue materials for energy is that they are “green” wood, meaning that water comprises approximately half the material’s weight. Bolding will research the practice of allowing the residues to dry on site for a period of months to reduce the transportation weight, which would allow vehicles to collect residues from more remote locations while maintaining a profit.

“Hauling water increases transportation costs and reduces efficiency, making it harder to profit from these materials,” explained Bolding, who is also working on a collaborative grant to optimize residue collection logistics. “But the tradeoff is that when you reduce the moisture, it makes the wood harder to process for energy production. The processing machines used on site such as chippers are designed to process flexible green wood, so when you introduce wood that is more brittle, it requires more effort from the machines and more fuel to power them. It is also difficult to load trucks to maximum payload when hauling dry material. Trailer volumes are often reached prior to achieving the maximum gross vehicle weight.”

Another practice that Bolding will examine is processing the green materials on site and then leaving the chipped product to dry before collecting it for transport.

“We’re working to find the right balance between reducing moisture content and minimizing processing challenges and associated hauling cost,” he noted. “We will test the finished materials by analyzing their energy and ash contents along with chip size distribution. These variables all affect product quality and value.”

To better assess the environmental impacts of forest residue collection and processing, Bolding will study the soil and water impacts of these varying methodologies and develop guidelines for best management practices for biomass recovery on underutilized and reclaimed land.

“There is a concern that when you remove these materials from a site, you’re reducing the quality of the land and its future productivity,” he explained. “While our research has shown that there is little difference in site conditions between these processes and more conventional approaches, we’d like to dispel those concerns with additional research data while providing guidelines for biomass harvesting contractors.”

Bolding is also involved with the education and outreach components of the project. Virginia Tech, in conjunction with the other participating universities, will foster an undergraduate scholars program that will rotate a summer internship program among the universities, with students researching biomass and bioproduct development at host institutions. The scholars program will specifically encourage participation of minority and first-generation students.

“In year four, Virginia Tech is scheduled to host a cohort of five to 10 undergraduates, with representatives from each of the schools,” he said. “They’ll have an immersive experience each summer, conducting research and working with industry partners to learn about sustainable biomass utilization.”

The grant will also fund outreach efforts for secondary educators, including educational toolkits and a curriculum promoting green science for fourth through sixth grade students.

The five-year grant is one of nine provided by a $90 million dollar investment from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which seeks to improve the sustainability of the nation’s food supply and ensure better utilization of agricultural landscapes.

Written by David Fleming

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