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Penn State Biomass Makes Progress Using Shrub Willows As Renewable Energy

Just on the outskirts of University Park, there are 34 acres of land that have potential of changing the future here at Penn State.

The NewBio Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium has planted shrub willow in the hopes of harvesting the plants to use as renewable energy. The program prides itself on working towards sustainability.

“The idea is to make cellulosic ethanol [from the shrub willows], which is the equivalent of corn ethanol,” said Michael Jacobson, Professor of Forest Resources and Chair of Forest Ecosystem Management Program. Ethanol is used in the gas we fill our cars with at gas stations. Making this new type of ethanol would open new doors to the fuel, heating, and renewable resources markets.

“We think eventually with climate change, and fossil fuel supply and demand, uncertainty, and volatility in the world markets, we believe there will be an increase in demand for renewable resources,” Jacobson said.

The shrub willow planted in the 34 acres off Route 99 is able to grow successfully on poorer soil, therefore it is not in direct competition with crops for food and more rich soil. Jacobson explained that it’s a “mess” cross-harvesting corn for both fuel resources and food. He hopes the shrub willow will help make the two markets a little less messy and a little more productive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has funded this and six similar Biomass project since its beginning in 2012, although the shrub willow project at Penn State is one of the largest. Led by Armen Kemanian, Tom Richards, and Barbara Kinne, there are more than 80 researchers working together on the project.

“This is an excellent site to investigate impacts on soil and water quality, biodiversity, avoided carbon dioxide emission, and the potential for growing a regional biobased economy,” Kemanian said.

According to Kemanian, Penn State has joined up with a sister program in New York in order to use specialized machinery from a New York-based company, Double A Willow, as well as the harvester from Celtic Energy. These machines are able to properly harvest the shrubs, and it’s deemed successful, despite the change in direction from liquid fuel production to other markets.

MKB Construction, a Phoenix-based company, has already bought willow chips from the first harvest to use as an absorbing agent on construction sites. “[The crops are] not going anywhere…we are going to harvest it again and look for more markets,” says Jacobson, and it seems they have done just that.

“Penn State is recognized as a national leader in clean energy research and education – our faculty and students are creating new materials and strategies for solar, wind, biomass, as well as efficiency, smart-grid, and carbon capture and storage.  We truly are inventing the future!” Kemanian says. “We see renewable energy and a bio-based economy as a win-win for both sustainable energy and sustainable agriculture.”

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About the Author

Emily Davis

Emily Davis is a writer for Onward State, who is currently a junior majoring in English. She is an avid Spotify enthusiast, occasionally wears colors other than black, and will devour an entire box of Gushers with pleasure. You can easily stalk this rad person on Twitter and Instagram @emily_davis56 or contact her through email at [email protected]

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