Athens, Ga. – Researchers at the University of Georgia have been awarded an $880,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to experiment with pine tree plantations for potential use in biofuel production. The project also could result in key findings for research of carbon sequestration, a process where trees are used to capture excess carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere.
Professors from the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources plan to experiment with different ways of planting pines to get the greatest biofuel production. Essentially, Daniel Markewitz said, the scientists think there is a great potential for using pines for production of liquid fuels and for generating electricity. They want to know how to optimize pine plantation growth for biofuel. Markewitz, an associate professor, is working with Warnell colleagues Michael Kane and Robert Teskey, both professors, and assistant research scientist Dehai Zhao. Markewitz said the team plans to focus on the environmental balance required for such production: Not only on how to simultaneously grow timber and biofuels without degrading soil and water quality, but also to discover what happens to the carbon contained in the soil when the trees are harvested.
The project will not examine the economics of using trees for biofuels, but will instead focus on quality growth methods and environmental impacts.
Each member of the project team has a different role:
• Markewitz plans to study the amount of carbon being stored underground by trees – and what happens when those trees are harvested. Depending on what he finds, the project could have implications for carbon sequestration research, which is an important part of biofuel production.
• Kane will focus on the aboveground components, including tree dimensions such as height, diameter and branching as well as biofuel and timber biomass.
• Teskey intends to research the biology of the tree growth; i.e., what happens physiologically to the trees the closer they are planted together and how efficiently they capture solar energy.
• Zhao will provide an integrative life cycle carbon analysis, modeling not only above- and belowground carbon accumulation but losses of carbon due to forest management activities, clearly identifying the benefits of pine biofuels for reducing carbon loss to the atmosphere
The project will span multiple locations across the Southeast, including central and south Georgia, north Florida and the coast of South Carolina. The team intends to study existing pine plantations with trees planted at increasingly thicker densities, beginning with 600 trees per acre up to 1,800 trees per acre. Markewitz said the five-year project will help them devise more efficient ways of planting the pine stands and harvesting them, such as systems where some closely spaced tree rows are thinned out earlier for biofuel use while other widely spaced tree rows continue to grow for later timber harvest.
Research into efficient methods of producing biofuels has resulted in a flurry of experiments to find alternative sources. Corn is widely used to produce ethanol, but Warnell and other UGA researchers are looking at non-food sources that could be more efficiently adopted within existing forest management in the South. Part of this project also will try to demonstrate if it’s possible to get a better yield of biofuels from trees than one gets from corn, Markewitz explained, as well as one that is cheaper to produce.
“Incorporating biofuel feedstock production into existing systems of timber production could be very beneficial to regional land owners and to national energy security,” Kane added.
For more information on the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, see http://www.forestry.uga.edu/.