Forest resources professor part of huge biofuels research project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A forest products researcher in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is playing a role in a national effort to gauge the viability of a novel use for wood-based biofuels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Sept. 28 announced five grants totaling $136 million for projects led by institutions in Washington, Iowa, Louisiana and Tennessee. The five-year program will deliver research and development funding to public- and private-sector partners in 22 states to focus in part on developing aviation biofuels from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources.

One of those grants, for $40 million, will support a multi-institutional consortium called the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. The consortium will investigate whether wood and wood waste within five years can become the platform for a new biofuels industry aimed at developing alternatives for jet fuel and other high-value co-products.

Paul Smith, professor of forest products marketing at Penn State, leads the alliance's Environmentally Preferred Products Group, which will seek to provide focused information on environmental impacts in a way that is meaningful for industry, government leaders, purchasing managers and consumers. With a five-year budget of more than $1.3 million, the group -- which also includes researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington -- hopes to quantify environmental and social values and determine how those values influence purchasing decisions for biofuel-based products.

"Recognizing that knowledge of public perceptions, market needs and consumer preferences is important to ensure success of a future biofuels industry, our group will work to identify attitudes, perceptions and current understanding of biofuel-based products by supply chain members, end users and key stakeholder groups," he said.

"This knowledge will be used to develop insight into how perceived societal benefits might influence value propositions for regional bio-based systems and product outputs."

Spearheaded by Washington State University, the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance -- also known as NARA -- will take a molecule-to-market approach to building an aviation fuel industry in the Northwest region. Specifically, researchers will look at improving the supply chain for jet biofuel by increasing efficiency in everything from forestry operations to conversion processes.

The grants were announced at a Seattle news conference by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said the goal is to advance the nation's biofuels industry toward developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs and decreasing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

 "This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry," he said.

"Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy."

Approximately two-thirds of the funding of these grants is directed to research, with the remaining targeted to education and outreach/public awareness.

"This is an exciting opportunity to work with a world-class team of industrial, academic and government researchers to address one of society's most pressing challenges," said Smith, who before coming to Penn State worked for five years as an industrial forester in Colorado and Montana, and for two years as operations manager for a wood products export-trading company in the Pacific Northwest.

"There is no clear consensus regarding approaches to measure market-based sustainability perceptions," he added. "Previous methods have addressed progress toward a target, such as ecolabels, standards and producer claims, and setting sustainability priorities, such as life-cycle assessment, environmental product declarations and environmental input-output analysis."

This research will combine earlier approaches with market-based stakeholder, buyer and specifier input to better understand the role of environmental/societal benefits in measuring perceived customer value, Smith noted. The primary goals are to develop a social license for a regional bioenergy system and to provide environmental/social preference values for green-procurement protocols.

"New, innovative tools are needed to measure perceived sustainability of products and systems within key stakeholder groups," Smith said.

More information about the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, its work and its partners is available at http://www.nararenewables.org.
 

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Last Updated May 18, 2012