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BIOENERGY ADOPTION AND USE

Contact:

Greg Amacher

Greg Amacher, professor of forestry, is working with a team of researchers from the University of Florida and the University of Arkansas on a project funded by the USDA Bioenergy Initiative to develop the framework for an economic analysis model of bioenergy adoption of non-industrial private forestland in the United States. An application of this research is to promote biomass as not only an energy efficient fuel source, but also a viable source of income for forest landowners.

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Robert Bush

Robert Bush, professor of wood science and forest products, works with the pallet industry trade association, forest product firms, and regional solid waste associations to devise ways to recover wastes from the waste streams. Wood recovery/reuse/recycling of wood packaging materials includes an important use for energy. Wood waste is recycled to produce biofuel energy to run wood products manufacturing companies, eliminating dependency on coal and oil. Wood companies are thus able to produce much of the energy they use.

John Cundiff, professor of biological systems engineering, and David J. Parrish, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, are looking at constraints to locating a bioenergy facility in Gretna, Va. A bioenergy facility can employ multiple feedstocks. For example, herbaceous biomass could be used for half the year, and hardwood chips could be the feedstock for the other half. Piedmont Virginia could be especially well positioned to attract bioenergy production facilities because of its large forestry resource combined with good availability of land to produce herbaceous biomass. The ultimate constraints are more likely to be sociological or economic than technological or environmental. A 25-ton per hour plant operating solely on switchgrass would require committing 57 percent of the existing cropland within a 20-mile radius of Gretna to switchgrass production. Using woody biomass for six months would reduce the cropland acreage required to 28 percent, still a significant shift in the pattern of land use. In related research, Cundiff and colleagues have determined that the round bale is an attractive option for the harvest, storage, and transport of herbaceous biomass, such as switchgrass, from the field to a bioenergy facility.

Contact:

Rien Visser

Rien Visser, associate professor of forestry, and Bob Smith have been conducting a woody biomass market assessment for Southwestern Virginia. Visser is also working with the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Agency on a new co-firing plant for Dominion Power. Co-firing, which uses bioenergy resources along with coal, has fewer emissions than the burning of coal.

Contact:

Jeff Waldon

Jeff Waldon, executive director of the Conservation Management Institute, has been assisting Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, Va., with an evaluation of switchgrass as a potential source of fuel for heating the medical facility. He is also serving as the chair of a state workgroup on biomass energy. Switchgrass, when co-fired with coal, is a cost-effective energy source that produces lower emissions than simply burning coal by itself.

USE – TRANSPORTATION

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Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson, professor of mechanical engineering, is doing research to enhance vehicle design and performance when powered by bio-based fuels, such as the E-85 engines that are powered by a fuel mixture that is 85 percent ethanol. He also teaches courses that consider bio-based fuels for transportation.

BIOMASS SOURCES, CREATION, ENHANCEMENT

Contact:

Eric Beers

Eric Beers, professor of horticulture, is using Arabidopsis as a model system. Arabidopsis produces wood that resembles that produced by commercially important tree species, such as poplar. Beers and his postdoctoral researcher, Chengsong Zhao, are identifying genes that regulate the formation of xylem, the wood-forming tissue in plants. A more detailed understanding of wood formation can be applied to genetic engineering and molecular breeding of woody plants for altered wood density, energy-efficient pulping, increased value as biofuel, and environmentally friendly pest and decay resistance. His research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Biosciences program.

Contact:

Amy Brunner

Amy Brunner, associate professor of forestry, conducts research to understand the genetic control of tree growth, development, and physiology. Her work focuses on the genus Populus (poplars), a potential high-biomass energy crop. Genomics tools and functional studies at the whole tree level are being used to elucidate the genetic networks controlling crown architecture, flowering, dormancy, and wood formation/composition. An overarching goal is to identify genes that can be used to optimize biomass quantity and quality under sustainable, low-input conditions. For example, prevention of flowering could channel more energy into biomass growth that would otherwise be devoted to making reproductive structures, and manipulating crown architecture to optimize photosynthetic capacity could also enhance biomass production.

Contact:

Jim Burger

Jim Burger, professor of forestry and soil science, is researching ways to reclaim mined lands by using various tree species for biomass energy. His research looks to restore sustainable forests on mined lands for renewable energy as well as wood products, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services. See also Energy and Environment.

Contact:

Barry Flinn

Barry Flinn, an adjunct faculty member in horticulture and forestry and director of the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Danville, does research on woody plant genomics in support of the effort to diversify the tobacco-based economy of Southside Virginia. The energy application is to identify genetic markers for increased cell wall, or biomass, production. The result would be more energy and less ash from poplar and switchgrass fuels. The research is funded by the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.

Contact:

Thomas Fox

Thomas Fox, associate professor of forestry, is conducting research to increase forest biomass production through intensive plantation silviculture. As co-director of the Forest Nutrition Cooperative (FNC), which is a partnership among Virginia Tech, North Carolina State University, University of Concepcion in Chile, and 39 forest products companies in the United States and Latin America, Fox leads technology transfer efforts to meet the needs of the forest and energy industries in the United States and Latin America.

Contact:

M. Javed Iqbal

M. Javed Iqbal, research assistant professor with the Institute for Sustainable and Renewable Resources at IALR, does gene mapping and marker development of hardwood tree species for quality and growth traits in collaboration with the Sustainable Engineered Materials Institute in the Department of Forestry at Virginia Tech. His expertise is the development of DNA-based high throughput molecular markers for application in the identification, genetic diversity evaluation, and mapping of genes in crops, horticultural plants, and trees. His current focus is the genetics and genomics of specialized crops with potential as biofuels. His work supports the effort to diversify the tobacco-based economy of Southside Virginia.

Contact:

Jerzy Nowak

Researchers in horticulture led by Department Head Jerzy Nowak are conducting bioenergy and bio-products research and development by, integrating advanced engineering, polymer chemistry, and molecular breeding. One aim is to provide new, high-value crops, such as switchgrass and poplar as biomass sources, to diversify the tobacco-based economy of Southside and Southwest Virginia. A Bio-Based Energy and Products Research Center will be established with companion operations at Virginia Tech and IALR in Danville, and demonstrations at Windy Acres Nursery and Greenhouse operation in Gretna. The research is supported by a Virginia Tobacco Commission Special Projects allocation to the Virginia Tech team for bioenergy and bioproducts research.

Contact:

David Parrish

David Parrish, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is developing biofuels by growing crops as feedstocks for energy production. He has a particular interest in switchgrass. He and John Fike co-authored an exhaustive review of the biology and agronomy of switchgrass for biofuels. They evaluated switchgrass lines and compared switchgrass with other herbaceous biomass sources such as miscanthus and giant reed, two tall perennial grasses. Parrish interacts with public and private organizations regarding bioenergy potential. His research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Contact:

John Seiler

John Seiler, Shelton Short Professor of Forestry, has conducted research into the use of nitrogen fixing woody plants for biomass production and environmental limitations to their growth. Results of Seiler’s research are being used in models that predict forest productivity over a regional area. Policy makers can then use this information to make better informed decisions concerning the best management practices in southern forests.

Contact:

Bob Smith

Bob Smith, professor of wood science and forest products and extension specialist, is estimating woody residue production in Virginia and placing that information into GIS format for easy estimation of available resources for energy production. This is a joint research project with the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Virginia Forest Products Association, and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Contact:

Wade Thomason

Wade Thomason, Extension crop specialist and assistant professor in crop and soil environmental sciences, is working with biomass producers to develop sustainable production systems using hulless barley and other grain crops for ethanol production, and distillers’ grains for animal production.

BIOMASS CONVERSION, ETHANOL PRODUCTION

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Foster Agblevor

Foster Agblevor, professor of biological systems engineering, is working on the conversion of agricultural cotton-gin waste into ethanol, conversion of poultry litter, switchgrass, and wood into bio-oils and other products, and the production of bio-oils, electricity, and heat from biomass. He is developing renewable energy technology for rural Virginia while simultaneously solving waste disposal problems in the cotton and poultry industries. He invented a process for “Bioethanol Production from Cotton Gin Waste and Recycled Paper Sludge” (VTIP disclosure 02.126), which is exclusively licensed. The invention solves a problem in converting biomass to ethanol by exploiting the unique properties of the biomass feedstocks and using fermentative microorganisms to produce efficient fermentation with high ethanol yields. Contact Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties Inc. (www.vtip.org) for details. Agblevor’s research sponsors have included the National Science Foundation, Xethanol LLC, and others.

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Jiann-Shin Chen

Jiann-Shin Chen, professor of biochemistry, is conducting molecular analyses of bacterial genes and enzymes for the production of useful chemicals. In particular, his research focuses on the characterization of enzymes and genes for the production of acetone, butanol, and isopropanol by anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria live in places without air. In the absence of oxygen gas, anaerobic bacteria do not digest organic materials all the way to carbon dioxide. Instead, they produce large amounts of energy-rich end products like alcohols and hydrogen gas. Butanol and isopropanol are valuable solvents and automobile fuels that can be produced from biomass by several anaerobic bacteria. Research on butanol-producing bacteria is aimed at lengthening the period of production during each cycle of fermentation. Butanol is superior to ethanol as an automobile fuel because of its higher energy content and lower tendency to absorb moisture. Biobutanol is butanol produced by bacterial fermentation and is scheduled to be marketed by a leading oil company for automobile use in 2007. His research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Contact:

Carl Griffey

Carl Griffey, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is developing high- starch, low- fiber hulless barley varieties as a potential feedstock for ethanol production. He is also collaborating with the USDA Eastern Regional Research Center on looking at grain composition and ethanol production. In addition, he is working with the Virginia Crop Improvement Association and the Virginia Small Grains Council to promote the use of hulless barley for ethanol production. The research is supported by Small Grain Boards in Virginia, Kentucky, and Maryland, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Virginia Crop Improvement Association.

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Scott Renneckar

Scott Renneckar, assistant professor of wood science and forest products, is developing added-value materials from by-products extracted during the conversion of woody biomass to ethanol. The presence of these materials, lignin and hemicellulose polymers, in biomass limits the conversion of cellulose into ethanol. Transforming the by-products into higher value nanoscale particles to be used in composite materials that resemble natural tissues will allow additional revenue streams to be obtained from any biorefinery scheme.

Yi-Heng Percival Zhang, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, is working on cellulosic ethanol production in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, and Mascoma Co. He is also working on biohydrogen production including storage, transport, and conversion with ORNL and the University of Georgia. For example, Zhang and Jonathan R. Mielenz of ORNL have developed a means of “Biohydrogen Production by an Artificial Enzymatic Pathway” (VTIP disclosure 06.035). Obstacles to commercializing hydrogen-drive fuel cell technology are 1) the high cost of producing hydrogen, 2) hydrogen storage limitations, and 3) the limited infrastructure to deliver the fuel. Zhang and Mielenz propose to produce hydrogen from renewable polysaccharides, such as starch and cellulose, by an artificial enzymatic pathway. The advantages are: 1) high yield and 98 percent energy efficiency, 2) mild reaction conditions, 3) no external energy requirement, 4) recycling of all chemicals, such as inorganic phosphates and coenzymes, 5) low cost, 6) high storage capacity for hydrogen feedstock, and 7) easy and safe storage and distribution of sugars. A patent is pending.
      Zhang’s work on “Characterization of heterogeneous cellulose properties impacting enzymatic cellulose hydrolysis” is supported by Oak Ridge Associated Universities; “Investigating the relationship between characteristics of heterogeneous cellulose and cellulase activities” is supported by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, and research on the fundamental aspects of cellulose utilization by Clostridium thermocellum, in collaboration with Lee Lynd at Dartmouth College, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. Zhang is also researching biomolecular engineering of bacterial cellulases for ethanol and biochemical production.

PRODUCTS AND BYPRODUCTS

Contact:

Michael Ellis

Michael Ellis, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is doing research to develop direct ethanol fuel cells, which use ethanol instead of the more toxic methanol as a fuel source. Ethanol is an attractive fuel because it can be produced from renewable biological sources and can help to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions. Ellis is investigating the use of fuel cell membrane materials developed by Virginia Tech University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry James McGrath to determine whether the higher operating temperature and reduced crossover characteristics of these new materials can lead to improvements in direct ethanol fuel cell performance.

Tom Hammett, professor of wood science and forest products, and Phil Radtke, associate professor in forestry, have been researching the small-scale production and marketing of natural lump charcoal. Lump charcoal is a premium-grade product increasingly demanded by outdoor grilling and barbeque enthusiasts. By producing charcoal from small-diameter trees, trimmed branches, and other traditionally non-marketable wood sources, the research aims to reduce waste and provide a valuable income opportunity for forest managers and wood processors. Applications center on producing and marketing natural hardwood lump charcoal in ways that strengthen the bonds between local communities and their forests. Partnerships involving the College of Natural Resources are underway throughout Virginia to promote income opportunities for small businesses and forest landowners marketing natural lump charcoal. Future applications will be aimed at transferring technologies to produce lump charcoal as a biofuel, and increasing the fertility and carbon sequestration potential of forest and agricultural soils by adding charcoal.

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Ron Moffitt

Ron Moffitt, research associate professor and director of the Advanced and Applied Polymer Processing Institute at IALR, is working with Jerzy Nowak in Horticulture to create fortified fuel pellets. Recycled polymers are added to wood chips to create fuel pellets with an increased heat value and consistency when compared to wood chips alone. His work supports the effort to diversify the tobacco-based economy of Southside Virginia. The research is supported by a Virginia Tobacco Commission Special Projects allocation to the Virginia Tech team for bioenergy and bioproducts research.

Contact:

Zhiyou Wen

Zhiyou Wen, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, is developing a novel anaerobic digestion technology to treat animal/fish waste for biogas production. He is working with the seafood industry to develop an efficient way to treat clam waste. The research is supported by the Virginia Commercial Fisheries and Shellfish Technologies Program. He is also investigating using glycerol, a biodiesel byproduct, to grow microalgae. The algae can use glycerol as "food source" to support their growth. At the same time, the algae accumulate large quantity of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in their bodies. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have proved therapeutic capabilities against cardiovascular diseases, cancers, schizophrenia, and most recently noted, Alzheimer’s. By feeding algae with glycerol produced from biodiesel plants, the omega-3 algae biomass can be produced at a low cost. Wen is collaborating with Curtis Novak, assistant professor of animal and poultry sciences, to explore the possibility of feeding the algal biomass to laying hens. The hens will convert the omega-3 fatty acids into eggs, which benefits would be passed along to consumers.