Producing and using alternative energy is more important now than ever before, and scientists at Mississippi State University are focusing on timber as a possible source for energy.
"Whether you buy into the idea of climate change or not, we are all interested in protecting the environment," said Randy Rousseau, a forestry research and Extension professor. "The only thing I can see that would prevent us going forward with the development of renewable biofuels is for us to find undiscovered reserves of fossil fuels and cleaner ways to use those fossil fuels."
Ethanol, a corn-based biofuel, has been on the market for several years but has recently come under scrutiny because corn’s use as a fuel has driven up the price of this important food crop.
Scientists are now focusing on developing biofuels from other agricultural products, such as timber and switchgrass.
"We are trying to develop marginal land crops so that we don’t interrupt the food supply," said Rubin Shmulsky, head of MSU’s Department of Forest Products. "Using corn and soybeans as alternative energy sources can decrease the food supply and increase prices for other commodities. We are asking ourselves what else we could use that would not negatively impact prime agricultural land."
Timber and timber products may be one answer."There are several types of biomass that can be used to produce fuel, including underbrush, pine needles and tree branches," Shmulsky said. "None of these have many other uses."
Funded by the university’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center, Rousseau is now studying what type of trees can be grown quickly with a satisfactory yield.
"We are testing black willow, Eastern cottonwood and hybrid poplars in Mississippi and Missouri," Rousseau said. "We are trying to identify which trees grow best on marginal agricultural land and then figuring out how to maximize yields."
Trees grown for lumber are typically a high-value crop, so land availability is also an issue.
"One of the targets of the research now is to grow black willow on poorly drained, heavy clay soils like we have on non-operational catfish farms," Rousseau said. "Our black willow testing includes material from five different geographic areas in Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana. We are currently testing on several sites in Mississippi to define the best genetic material. If we can use the heavy clay soils that aren’t suitable for agricultural use, that land would then have value for all Mississippians."
Shmulsky said such research could create a new industry.
"There are several tree species, such as hybrid poplar, that grow tall and fat quickly but are not particularly strong," Shmulsky said. "Those types of timber would be great to use for energy. There are also other crops, such as giant miscanthus and switchgrass, that aren’t useful for human consumption. We can’t eat them, make clothes out of them, or build houses with them, but we may be able to use them as alternative energy sources."
The research is still in its early stages, but Rousseau said he believes biofuels are the future of energy.
"Making biofuel from timber and timber products is definitely feasible," he said. "KiOR, a company that has developed a proprietary process for turning renewable biomass into crude oil, is now developing a biofuels facility near Columbus. The process is in the demonstration phase, which is a critical step in the development of future facilities in Mississippi."
One goal of Rousseau’s research is to make timber for energy an economical option for the producer, manufacturer and consumer.
"Right now, pine is being used to study this process because of its chemical makeup and availability," he said. "Eventually, though, the species of tree will be less specific. We don’t want to be locked into any one material because that would make procurement difficult."
Rousseau said this research will likely reach beyond energy and end up being used in other industries important to everyday life.
"This research opens up a whole new arena," he said. "The pharmaceutical industry could take advantage of this. A number of different chemicals are created once you have a substance broken down to its basic form. After that, it is just a matter of arranging those chemicals in a way that fits your needs."