$2.5M grant to help researchers measure trees, biofuel

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STARKVILLE —A $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will benefit Mississippi State researchers in the university’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center studying the economic and ecological benefits of growing trees for biofuel production.

The DOE funding will help MSU scientists study how to produce better, hardier hybrid poplars and eastern cottonwoods harvested for biomass energy. The team also will quantify the ecosystem services these fast-growing trees provide.

Assistant Professor Heidi Renninger in MSU’s College of Forest Resources is the project’s principal investigator.

“Short rotation hybrid poplar and eastern cottonwood trees grow fast as woody crops used to produce biomass energy,” Renninger said. “These trees can grow between 20-40 feet in two to three years, at which time the trees are then coppiced, or cut back. The cut trees are harvested and used in the creation of biofuel while a new crop re-sprouts from the coppiced stumps.”

She said the team will develop an economic model that landowners can use to determine if short rotation woody crop production for bioenergy is right for them.

“We hope to find ways to make utilizing these trees for renewable energy more profitable for landowners and the emerging biofuel industry alike,” Renninger said. “In order to do that, we need resilient trees that can grow on different landscapes under different circumstances.”

While Renninger focuses on growing bigger, hardier trees, Courtney Siegert, associate professor of forestry, seeks to determine exactly how the trees help the ecosystem as a whole. 

“We will measure the ecosystem services the trees provide so landowners may be able to cooperate in ecosystem exchange services in the future, which will lower the price of bioenergy to make it more competitive with fossil fuels,” Siegert said.

The team will use remote sensing to compile a detailed snapshot of poplar and cottonwood plantations across the Mid-South leveraging existing sites and planting new ones in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. Data will be collected via LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, and uses lasers to measure variable distances. Hyperspectral imaging, which analyzes a wide spectrum of light, also will be used.

Qin Ma, assistant professor in the forestry department, explained how the data will be collected and used to build the economic model.

“We’ll cover the crown by collecting data with UAVs fitted with LiDAR and hyperspectral imaging capabilities; then we’ll walk the forest with a backpack that is equipped with the same technology,” Ma explained. “The data shows us how fast the trees are growing, how much water and nutrients they’re using, how much carbon they’re storing and much more. It gives us a complete picture from production and ecosystem service standpoints.”

Ma said the team then will use algorithms to match both data sets accurately so they can estimate the physical and spectral aspects of the trees from above and below.

“All of this will be used in an economic model to better estimate both the productivity of the trees while also quantifying the ecosystem services they provide,” she added.

Other MSU researchers on the project include Austin Himes, assistant professor of forestry, and Ray Iglay, assistant professor of wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture. Collaborators also include the University of Tennessee and Louisiana Tech University. Oregon’s GreenWood Resources Inc. is providing access to the company’s hybrid poplar cuttings. 

For more information on MSU’s College of Forest Resources, visit www.cfr.msstate.edu.


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