The USDA believes the Southeast region of the U.S. offers huge potential for a variety of dedicated energy crops and in September, the agency agreed to provide $15 million to form the Southeast Partnership for Integrated Biomass Supply Systems (IBSS) to develop that potential. The grant was one of five issued by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture as a means to accelerate renewable energy feedstocks throughout the country. IBSS will be led by Tim Rials, director of the Center for Renewable Carbon at the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture, and is comprised of a wide range of partners, including multiple universities and technology providers.
The multifaceted project includes a number of goals, but the immediate focus will be on sustainability research, workforce training and, of course, feedstocks. “One of the strengths and weaknesses of the region is that we have a very diverse landscape and sources of biomass,” Rials says. “What we’re looking to do is take this to the next level, where we are optimally providing feedstock that is designed and tailored to different conversion technologies. It’s really about feedstock delivery and developing a sustainable biomass supply system for the region.”
Switchgrass, already proven to hold great potential for the Southeast through work carried out by the University of Tennessee and Dupont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC, will continue to be developed at IBSS. Woody crops are another area of focus, particularly short-rotation hardwoods such as eucalyptus and hybrid poplar. “If you look at this particular region, we’ve got 20 million acres of pine production out there in plantations, but the hardwood plantations have not seen the same type of success,” Rials says. “As we talk about feedstocks for biochemical and thermochemical conversion technologies, it’s important for us to make progress in that hardwood system.”
Information is already being compiled for IBSS extension and outreach programs, including an internship program with several universities to introduce students to various biomass considerations and conversion methods. Planting of new biomass crops will begin in earnest in the spring, Rials says. Forestry product developer ArborGen is a core member of IBSS and will focus on optimizing wood characteristics for biofuels feedstocks and developing sustainable methods for harvesting, transporting and storing those types of trees. “Our entire team of scientists, silvicultural and forestry experts work every day to develop new solutions for short-rotation woody feedstocks and biofuels- and bioenergy-related technologies,” says Maud Hinchee, chief science officer at ArborGen. “We will lend our collective expertise toward this effort, which we believe will help meet the Southeast region’s need for biomass and our nation’s growing demand for wood, fiber and energy.”