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Clean Power Cornell researchers get biofuel from willow

Published on August 6th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


Biofuel Does Grow on Trees, Part Deux

August 6th, 2012 by  

Cornell researchers get biofuel from willow

So what if money doesn’t grow on trees? Researchers at Cornell University have set out to prove that biofuel can grow on willow shrubs, and if their current project bears out,… well you can take that to the bank.

As a commercially viable biofuel crop, shrub willows could put more than one million acres of underused land into production in New York State alone, providing farmers with a new, low-maintenance cash crop while pumping out renewable fuel, too.

A long and winding road for shrub willow biofuel

As with all woody biofuel crops, shrub willow has been facing some stiff obstacles in terms of commercial biofuel production. The primary goal of the research team has been to develop a species of willow shrub that can produce high yields on marginal land, and that project has been going on since 1998.

That’s nothing, according to Cornell researcher Larry Smart. Cited in a recent article by writer Sarah Thompson, he mentioned that “determining the precise genetic mechanisms that produce hybrid vigor has been a scientific challenge for a century.”

Fortunately, things began to heat up earlier this year with $950,000 in new funds for the breeding program from Cornell’s Northeast Sun Grant Institute, along with installation of a new boiler to heat two buildings at the school’s campus in upstate New York. The boiler will burn shrub willow biofuel produced on the campus.

The Sun Grant Institute is partly funded by federal agencies, which came through again last month with a grant of $1.37 million to study the yield and vigor of shrub willow hybrid. That research will leverage new information from the plant’s newly mapped genome.

Shrub willow biofuel and fracking

Aside from demonstrating that shrub willow for biofuel can be a viable cash crop, the new boilers will help show farmers that shrub willow cultivation is also an economical way to produce biofuel for use on the farm.

In that regard, the shrub willow program is part of a broader effort by Cornell and New York State to develop non-fossil fuel resources within the state’s borders. As with the state’s dairy farm biogas initiatives, the goal is to enable property owners to extract more cash from their land in a sustainable way, rather than leasing land for potentially harmful uses such as fracking operations (fracking is a natural gas drilling method that involves pumping chemical brine underground).

The fracking issue is a particularly urgent one for New York State, since upstate reservoirs located in rural areas provide virtually all of the drinking water for New York City, and for a number of upstate communities.

Water contamination from fracking is the main concern. The propensity of fracking to cause earthquakes is also a major concern for New York’s sprawling reservoir system, which involves enormous reservoirs and hundreds of miles of aqueducts.

Image: Some rights reserved by Magic Madzik.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • vetxcl

    Highlighted area in article: ‘Northeast Sun Grant Institute’ : clicking it produces an error message.

  • Pingback: San Diego Loves Green – Another Day, Another Attack On Navy Biofuel()

  • Energy

    Waste to Energy projects are very beneficial to create clean renewable energy. This will create thousands of new jobs and improve our economy. compoenergyinc is a start-up company and I wish them the best.

  • Willows grow like weeds all over Western Alaska. They are considered a nuisance here; they grow where man has disturbed the tundra. In some cases they’re so thick that big game can’t pass through them. Since the majority of our residents rely on this game for their food, habitat destruction by willows is a problem.

    There’s been talk about mulching them and processing them into “bricks.” There’s been talk about starting a small pellet mill. There’s been lots of talk, but nobody knows the most cost effective way to deal with them. The benefits of sustainable alternative heating fuel supplies, combined with the benefits of habitat recovery could be substantial. Perhaps the folks at Cornell have some ideas that could help.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Alaska has a lot of sunshine for a good portion of the year. A harvesting/processing system run by solar might make sense.

      I read an interesting article about a group of loggers operating solely with solar and horse power. They ran electric chain saws (charged one set of batteries and took a charged set with them to the woods each day). They dragged the trees out by horse. Doing the math, they made just as much money as the folks logging with oil.

      I’m not suggesting that horses, or animals, would be a good way to transport. But what if there were solar powered systems that could cut and chip/compact the willows in place and then transportation out could be done with a combination of solar and liquid fuel?

      Get the price right and individuals could own/run small harvesting operations and sell their product on to processors.

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