Rise of the Biomass
Under the scorching sun on a May afternoon, workers wipe the sweat from their brows between pounding 10-inch greenish-yellow stems into the soil on a patch of land at the West Virginia University Agronomy Farm. It’s one of many sites – not just in West Virginia but surrounding states – where visions of a future fueled by biomass are engrained into mainly forgotten lands. It’s a vision of alternative fuels and safer, sustainable products, all at an economical price-point. In the Mid-Atlantic region alone, more than 8.5 million acres of mined and marginal agricultural property are primed for reclamation, said Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology. Left alone, it’ll remain vast, empty space.
Story by Jake Stump, Director of Research Communications
Photos by Brian Persinger, Paige Nesbit and Jake Stump
But Wang’s got a tall task: Lead a multi-state, multi-university project – funded by a $10 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant – that aims to revitalize and reinvent these regional lands with biomass, which is growing plants to be used for energy, heat, bioproducts and other practical applications.
Those greenish-yellow stems plunged into the ground at the Morgantown farm? They’re hybrid willow cuttings, a short-rotation woody biomass crop developed by the State University of New York and Cornell University.
“Not much of this crop is grown in this area,” said Jamie Schuler, associate professor of silviculture and leader of one of the project’s task groups.
Schuler is helping to oversee the group – which includes contractors from Fairmont, W.Va.-based AllStar Ecology – planting the willow cuttings on this site. Some planted patches have been doused with biochar, charcoal produced from plant matter that can preserve nutrients in the soil to make it more porous.
Within weeks, the cuttings should start shooting out roots. And after one or two growing seasons, they can be five- to 10-feet tall.
The willow itself can provide a similar amount of energy as other hardwoods, and is a carbon-neutral energy source. After a year in ground, the team will chop them down to four to six inches high, causing the willows to multiply.
Typically, willow can be cultivated every few years at relatively low cost and harvested a handful of times before needing to be replanted.
“What we have out here with this project is not only about seeing how much biomass we can grow on these kinds of marginal ag sites, but can we grow them in a way that’s sustainable?” Schuler said.
You can count on consistency with the harvest, too. If they’re duds, they’re all duds. And if they thrive, all will thrive.
“They’re all clones,” Schuler said of the cuttings. “They’re exactly the same genetically. So we’ll get a consistent crop out there. If we can find one that’s a really good producer, we can replicate that one because all we’ve got to do is take the cutting and jam it into the ground and it’ll replicate itself.”
Survival = success
In many ways, this is a clinical trial – but instead of producing a medical treatment, it’s harvesting a healthy crop and applying its qualities to produce energy.
“Our initial indicator of success will be survival,” Schuler said. “We’re expecting 90 percent survival at this site.”
And the Agronomy Farm is one of many. In North Central West Virginia alone, there are six sites, including ones in Reedsville, Jackson’s Mill and Jane Lew. In addition to sites in West Virginia, others are scattered across New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Ohio.
Willow’s not the only biomass crop at play; switchgrass, a self-seeding perennial crop, has also been planted. Switchgrass is used primarily for electricity, heat production, soil conservation, forage production and fiber. Forest logging residue is also a major feedstock of the project.
Observing from a 30,000-foot view is Wang, the leader of the massive undertaking officially named the Mid-Atlantic Sustainable Biomass for Value-Added Products Consortium (MASBio), a group of universities, industry partners, national laboratories and government agencies advancing the science and practice of sustainable bioproducts.
“MASBio is a complex, integrated effort that includes education, research and outreach,” said Wang, who has taught forest and biomass harvesting and analysis, and computing applications in forest and natural resources for more than 20 years at WVU.
“Leading a project of this scale and importance reflects the research stature of our faculty,” said WVU Vice President for Research Fred King. “Dr. Wang has worked to build a strong network and strategic relationships with industry, landowners and policymakers across the region to set the stage for this initiative. Together, they can build on the established momentum to making renewable energy an everyday reality that will help power the future of our nation.”
Days after Schuler’s team planted the willow cuttings, Wang stopped by the site to envision what awaits.
His research interests include biomass energy and bioproducts, forest carbon sequestration and optimization, computer simulation and system modeling, and forest ecosystem management and climate change. Somehow, all of those components play a role in the project before his eyes.
“For the Mid-Atlantic region and West Virginia and Appalachian regions, specifically, we are heavily forested states,” Wang said. “But we also have an opportunity to utilize so-called abandoned or disturbed mining land. To grow biomass crops and get use out of the byproducts is our purpose.”
The glue that binds
Within WVU, MASBio reaches past the Davis College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, of which Wang and Schuler are both faculty members.
Engineer John Hu recognizes the scope of the project, as well as the moving pieces that make it happen from start to finish. Beyond the fields are Hu’s labs.
“This is probably the largest project you can get from the USDA,” said Hu, the Statler chair in engineering for natural gas utilization and leader of one of MASBio’s task groups. “My task is to convert the biomass to different chemicals.”
From the biomass, Hu’s group can develop adhesives – some of which can be edible and added to food products. Others can be used for building construction. Or to use for toys. One of the major differences is that chemicals derived from biomass are much safer.
“Look at how dangerous some toys can be,” Hu said. “If a child accidentally eats binding material from a toy, it gets into their body and the glues and adhesives from petroleum are rather dangerous.
“So what we can do is to build an adhesive from the biomass and combine it with protein from soybeans – which you can eat, right? – and that becomes a very strong adhesive that’s not only environmentally-friendly but safe and high-value.”
Hu will also look at converting biomass to biochar – yes, the same biochar mixed into the soil of help preserve the nutrients of the crops. But biochar has additional features. It’s been used in wastewater treatment to remove contaminants.
And no real project would be complete without 3D printing. Hu’s research group hopes to make products by running biomass-derived lignin into 3D printers.
Hu said the researchers want to make a system where products from biomass can be a part of stormwater management, mitigating acid mine drainage, restoring streams, carbon sequestration and improving soil and water quality.
“With the knowledge and expertise on our team, we’ll be able to make a significant contribution to further development of the sustainable bioproducts sector with decarbonization of the biomass supply chain system.”
Regardless of the use, Hu is a realist when it comes to the potential success of biomass: It’s all about the money.
“Biomass helps the environment,” Hu said. “We know that. But the bottom-line economics is the key factor. That’s why we convert it to high-value chemicals for economics.”
For more information, visit the MASBio website at masbio.wvu.edu.
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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