NEWBio project concludes, advances biomass energy efforts

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The land stretching between New England and the Ohio River is a critical region dominated by agriculture and forests, but also hosts four of the largest metropolises in the nation with rapidly increasing demand for sustainable energy. With countless rural communities suffering decades of decline, the economic, social and ecological potential for biomass energy is greater than ever.

That’s why from 2012-17 a regional network of individuals from leading universities, businesses and government entities came together to advance sustainable bioenergy in the Northeast. Together with $10 million of federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), they formed the NorthEast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium (NEWBio) effort to advance the science and practice of sustainable bioenergy for the region.

A harvester collects stalks of willow for processing.

A harvester collects stalks of willow for processing.

Image: Penn State

From Sept. 12-14, NEWBio will take part in the Mid-Atlantic Biomass Energy Conference and Expo (MABEX) at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. MABEX brings together attendees from academia, business, government organizations and the public to showcase the advances of biomass energy.

“Our focus has been on perennial biomass crops, specifically warm-season grasses and short-rotation willow, and the production strategies, policies and markets relevant to this region,” said Tom Richard, NEWBio project director, who is also a professor of agricultural and biological engineering in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “Our goal was to pursue our shared vision, that biomass energy could provide the social, economic, and ecological drivers for a sustainable regional rural renaissance.”

According to Richard, NEWBio made tremendous progress building robust, scalable and sustainable value chains for bio-based energy, chemicals and materials across the Northeastern region.

Chips move down a conveyor belt during processing.

Chips move down a conveyor belt during processing.

Image: Penn State

With NEWBio drawing to a close, Project Manager Barbara Kinne reflects on the accomplishments of the team.

“Knowing what the project set out to do — build robust value chains for biomass — I’d say we’ve met that goal in a number of ways. One tangible success is the development at Cornell of high-yielding willow feed stocks. One cultivar has received a patent and several others have been submitted to the U.S. Patent Office,” Kinne said. “We’ve increased our understanding of the environmental, economic and emotional considerations that landowners focus on when pursuing marketable crops for their fields, and helped industrial manufacturers with the challenges they face in refining their planting and harvesting equipment.”

An important NEWBio goal was to identify options where bioenergy crops could improve environmental outcomes without competing with food production. One was floodplains and buffers along streams where these crops can improve water quality; a second was to utilize abandoned and marginal lands left behind by the agriculture and coal industry. The patented high-yielding willow and various warm-season grasses can help accomplish both, and breathe vitality into former strip-mine lands and waterways across the region.

NEWBio is one of seven USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grants in the country.

In addition to Richard and Kinne, there have been 15 Penn State faculty collaborators from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences, Education, Medicine, and Smeal, and Penn State Extension working on the NEWBio team. Altogether, 120 team members participated in the consortium and its activities over the five-year life of the project.

NEWBio’s consortium includes the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Cornell University, Ohio State University, Delaware State University, Rutgers University, Drexel University, University of Vermont, SUNY-ESF, West Virginia University, Idaho National Laboratory, USDA-ARS, University of Maine and Stony Brook University.

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Last Updated September 13, 2017