UNIVERSITY PARK – In an effort to enhance coordination and collaboration among the many and varied green energy research projects under way and planned across the University, Penn State recently created the Biomass Energy Center.
An interdisciplinary initiative that also includes the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the center will be housed in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Environment and Natural Resources Institute.
“We have both the agricultural expertise and the energy expertise,” said Biomass Energy Center leader Tom Richard, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. “On this campus, Penn State’s Energy Institute has been doing cutting-edge energy research for decades, and we are merging that with cutting-edge agricultural research to produce social, economic and environmental benefits. And we have the infrastructure in this state to disseminate what we learn to farmers, foresters and businesses through our cooperative extension network.”
Energy is one of the pressing issues for the coming century, and biomass is one of the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels because it is carbon neutral, renewable and can be produced domestically, according to Richard. “While biomass, or so-called green energy, cannot solve all our energy needs, it can provide a third of our transportation fuel needs and a significant amount of our other energy needs,” he said. “Gov. Rendell has endorsed and Congress is considering a ’25 X 25′ pledge, with a goal to derive 25 percent of out total energy from biomass by the year 2025.”
Using renewable “crops” such as corn, switchgrass, trees and manure — just to name a few — to produce that much energy is credible, contended Richard, who noted the federal departments of energy and agriculture estimate that there is a billion tons of biomass available in this country on a sustainable basis to make energy. “Penn State has strong research programs on using thermal, chemical and biological mechanisms to convert biomass to electricity, transportation fuels, chemicals, stationary power and heat,” he said. “More than 50 faculty members at Penn State currently are involved in research related to biomass energy.”
Richard contended that huge societal changes will be needed to break the county’s dependence on oil imported from oversees, but he believes that Americans are ready to make the switch. “Tens of thousands of landowners must change the way they are farming and managing their forests to produce not only food, fiber and recreation, but also biomass that will produce energy,” he explained. “One way to think of this is that for the last 150 years in Pennsylvania we have had a petroleum-based economy. In the coming decades we will be transitioning to a bio-based economy.
“If that bio-based economy is going to be different than our last bio-based economy of the 1800s, we are going to have to do some innovative things. In terms of production, we need to develop cropping systems that provide food and fiber at levels at least equivalent to today, but also come up with energy-producing crop rotations such as cover crops to grow between food crops,” Richard said. “We need to use land more intensively but use the land in an environmentally sound way. And we must develop the technology to make fuels from huge amounts of biomass such as switchgrass and small-diameter trees.”
Ironically, one of the challenges of putting together the Biomass Energy Center at Penn State also had to do with its strength, Richard noted. “We have such a tremendous breadth of research,” he said. “That is a good thing, but making the transition to a bio-based economy will require marshalling all of our agricultural and forest resources and determining value-added strategies for the entire system. There is so much expertise and ongoing research at the university regarding energy and agriculture that it was difficult to get it all under one umbrella structure.”
The focus of the Biomass Energy Center will be to coordinate and facilitate research and outreach across the university, building teams to address the complete value chain of biomass energy systems. Center activities can be classified into four categories, noted Richard: improved production of biomass feedstocks; the integration of biomass production into sustainable agrosystems; conversion of biomass into energy; and technology transfer to companies, state agencies, nongovernmental organizations and citizens throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. Each of these categories is critical to the whole if biomass energy is to achieve its potential, he said.