Researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have completed the harvest of its first experimental crop of shrub willow. The intention of the biomass crop is for use to produce renewable energy and bio-based products. The 34 acres of the shrub willow is part of a five-year program called NEWBio one of seven regional projects of which the goal is to investigate and research sustainable production of woody biomass. Planted in 2012 on land formerly owned by the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, the biomass crop will regrow and will be harvested every three years.
“The shrub willow stand at Rockview can continue producing biomass for more than 20 years, and we hope to use it both as a source of renewable energy and as a platform for sustainability research,” explained Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling in the Department of Plant Science, one of the lead researchers in the project. “This is an excellent site to investigate impacts on soil and water quality, biodiversity, avoided carbon dioxide emissions, and the potential for growing a regional bio-based economy. Students from our college visit the site and have a firsthand and close-up view of this new crop for the region.”
Kemanian said shrub willow was selected because the perennial likes to be cut. The team is taking advantage of the shrub willow’s vigorous regrowth allowing for multiple harvest cycles. In addition, Kemanian notes the plants also establish a root system that stabilizes the soil and stores substantial amounts of carbon that otherwise would be lost to the atmosphere.
Other advantages of the plant include its ability to store an recycle nutrients leading to little need for fertilizer and an ability to help improve water quality. Increasing perennial vegetation is a critical component of Pennsylvania’s water quality strategy, and these biomass crops allow vulnerable parts of the landscape to remain economically productive while protecting water quality says Kemanian who notes that shrub willow can produce the same amount of biomass as a corn crop with only a third of the nitrogen fertilizer. When the plants grow, they take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. After harvest, when the biomass is combusted either as wood chips or as a liquid biofuel, the carbon dioxide returns to the atmosphere to complete the cycle.
Researchers believe the NEWBio project could hold an important key to future economic development for the region but first an understanding of how to economically handle the harvesting, transportation and storage of massive volumes, which constitutes 40 to 60 percent of the cost of biomass is needed. The continuation of the research will address these concerns as well.