When Life Gives You Beetle-Killed Forests, Make Biofuel


There hasn’t been much upside to the rash of infestations of pine and spruce bark beetles in the forests of the Rocky Mountains. Since 1996, these pesky insects have chewed through 42 million acres of woods in the West, an area the size of Wisconsin. That destroys habitat, and makes the forests susceptible to wildfire.

Now, a group of researchers from Colorado says it can process beetle-killed trees into biofuel that can be mixed with gasoline for use in combustion engines like those in most cars and trucks—and the U.S. Department of Agriculture just awarded them a $10 million grant to do so.  

"A changing climate threatens to expand the threat from bark beetle on our forest lands," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "As we take steps to fight the bark beetle, this innovative research will help take the biomass that results from bark beetle infestation and create clean, renewable energy that holds potential for job creation and promises a cleaner future for America."

The dead trees will be processed into a biofuel called reformate, using a technique developed by Cool Planet Energy Systems, a company in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Its system uses a procedure known as pyrolysis, which involves heating the wood in oxygen-free conditions to break it into hydrocarbons and volatile chemicals. After a series of refining processes, the finished reformate product can be added directly to gasoline, up to a volume of 30 percent, and burned in regular cars, said project leader Keith Faustian of Colorado State University. Specialized motors can also run solely on the product, he added. The technique also produces a charcoal-like by-product called biochar, which can be combusted to heat homes or, even better, added to soils to make it more fertile.

Timber companies would be happy to cut down the beetle-ravaged trees for profit. But much of the wood is too damaged by infestation to be of any use. And there is no real paper industry in the Rockies, Paustian added. So the biofuel plan makes a product out of what would otherwise be waste.

Easier said than done: Figuring out where exactly all these beetle-killed trees are, how much wood there is, and how much can feasibly be cut down will be a challenge, said Paustian.

The researchers will also try to figure out how to harvest the trees in the most eco-friendly manner. Though getting rid of a major fire hazard would be beneficial, "Any time you've got machinery in the woods, certainly you don't want to be working in areas that are too steep or where the soils are too fragile," Paustian said. "Part of the project will be looking at places where environmental impacts from erosion and the like aren't a problem.”

Mountain pine beetles and bark beetles are native to the West, but infestation has been on the rise in the past few decades. The many freezing nights of a long Rocky Mountain winter kills the insects' eggs, but rising temperatures from climate change is widely believed to be helping more bugs survive into spring.

The beetles have natural predators such a woodpeckers and insects like clerid beetles that feed on adults and larvae under the bark. But these often fail to prevent outbreaks, and once an infestation has begun, there's currently nothing that can be done to stop it, Paustian said.

Cool Planet's system processes the biofuel in small, mobile refineries, about the size of a shipping container and carried on flatbed trucks or semi-trailers. This enables production in remote areas where beetle-killed wood is plentiful, which will save costs and emissions associated with transportation.

Paustian was clear to not to oversell the project's promise, and didn't want to make it seem like it's a good thing that hundreds of millions of trees have died. "I'd express it differently," he said.“We're making the best out of a bad situation.” 

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Original article from TakePart