Penn State to Turn ‘Scrub’ Trees into Biomass Fuel

John Davis

PennStateextResearchers at Penn State University are looking at turning a tree seen as not much more than a weed into biomass. This article from the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, the school’s hometown, says researchers are working on a $10 million, 5-year project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to grow shrub willow as the next great biofuel feedstock.

On the the edge of a cornfield just off Interstate 99 between State College and Bellefonte, researchers planted 34 acres of shrub willow in 2012 and sat back to wait. After one early harvest, Armen Kemanian, assistant professor of production systems and modeling, said he and his team waited three years for the plants to grow enough to mow them down.

That time came this month as equipment was brought in from New York, giant harvesters that drove over the 20-foot-tall crop, not only chopping them down but grinding them into chips. Each pass of harvester turned a long row of the skinny trees into a truckload of mulchy mass.

Three years of growth are expected to produce about 800 tons, but that’s one of the things Kemanian says they are measuring. There are other places that grow shrub willow for its biomass potential, like in New York and Canada. The Penn State study is exploring how the native Eurasian crop fares a little more to the south.

“We are working out some of the kinks,” said Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources and Penn State and Kemanian’s NewBio co-chairman. “The point is, it’s very important to understand the economics. You can’t look at just one harvest and decide if it breaks even or not. There are 15 to 20 years of multiple cycles.”

The researchers say the willows planted in 2012 are expected to regenerate about seven times, leading to decades of harvesting. And it can be grown on land that wouldn’t normally support other crops.

biomass, USDA