Research Priorities

Research priorities roadmap 2011 update of the Northeast Regional Center. Energy security and sustainable solutions through agriculture.

Biomass Feedstock Research Priorities

Under the MicroscopeThe term "biomass feedstock" refers to the plant-based source materials needed for all bio-based industries. Biomass feedstocks are the plants or 'biological starting materials' that can be used to create energy, transportation fuels, and bioproducts such as plastics, rubber, and polymers that are currently made from petroleum-based resources.

Research and development priorities for the efficient sustainable delivery of biomass feedstocks to conversion facilities will include optimization of the plant production materials and methods, harvest methods, and transportation logistics.

Biomass Feedstock Development

What are the best biomass crops for the Northeast region? Research priorities include identification of optimal plant feedstocks. Identification or breeding optimization research may include one or several relevant considerations such as Northeast region climate, soils (including marginal soils), chemical characteristics of the harvested plant materials, non-invasive species, breeding for environmental benefits, energy quality characteristics, yield, production potential in monoculture and polyculture settings, development of genetic markers for improved selection of crops for the Northeast region. A regional feedstock assessment is needed, including US-regional mapping (lines of demarcation) for optimal fuel blending (e.g., soy and canola freeze at different temperatures and present different challenges for winter-season fuel blending. Are there regions where one crop makes more sense than the other from a fuel-blending standpoint?) Are there waste streams or other northeast region processing residues that can be utilized as biomass feedstocks? Research priorities include identification, quantity estimates, and potential for use of process residues use of municipal solid waste, landfill gases and waste oils (yellow grease).

Sustainable Biomass Feedstock Production

What are the best production management practices to optimize sustainable plant growth and production? Research priorities include evaluation of agronomic and forest management practices to address issues of environmental sustainability or environmental enhancement/improvement, and studies that contribute to the improvement of our understanding of agronomic factors such as seed/seedling vigor, fertilization practices, pest control, pest management, studies that improve stand establishment, forest management practices to increase yield and improve pest management. Can cover crop systems optimize land use for biomass production in a sustainable way in the Northeast region?

Land Use Optimization and Issues

Land in the Northeast Region has multiple uses. What are the attitudes toward changes in land use? What are the options for creating systems for accommodating multiple land uses and what are the related issues/impacts for biofuel feedstock production? For example, land may be used for agricultural production, wildlife habitat, recreation, soil and water conservation, air quality improvement, carbon sequestration goals, in addition to biomass feedstock production. How does land use change in the Northeast region influence land use in other areas of the country or globe?

Equipment Technologies for Sustainable Biomass Harvest

What are the best feedstock harvest methods? Harvest optimization research priorities include studies that contribute to the optimization of harvest methods, determination of amounts of plant residue to leave behind for sustainable soil health, development of new harvesting equipment systems, willow and woody crop harvest systems and equipment design, size reduction for transport to processing facilities, and harvest timing studies for northeast region perennial crops.

Conversion Technologies Research Priorities

CropsThe term "biomass conversion" refers to the alteration of plant materials through chemical, physical or biological methods to create a higher value (value-added) product such as bioenergy, liquid biofuels or bioproducts.

Integrating Thermochemical and Biochemical Systems

Research priorities identified in this area include studies that integrate thermochemical and biochemical conversion (e.g., using microbes to convert to an intermediate and then using thermochemical conversion or catalysts to convert to a fuel, or, using lignin for heat and power in addition to obtaining bioproducts from the extraction of fermentable sugars.) In addition, research that contributes novel approaches (beyond solid catalysts) in biocatalysis for stabilizing or upgrading products of thermochemical conversion technologies are needed (e.g., enhance diffusion of char molecules, improve bio-oil characteristics). The use of stable isotope labels in feedstocks to better understand pyrolysis mechanisms was identified as another research priority for the region. Biological conversion systems and microbial ecology in conversion systems Research priorities include engineering enzyme cocktails on real substrates, identify enzymes producers beyond T. reesei; Experts also recommended priority be given to studies that contribute to engineering biocomplexity such as mixed microbial cultures and microbial ecology studies, using a consortia to do direct conversion, increasing the flexibility and robustness of the system to diverse and complex feedstocks. Research is needed in undefined microbial cultures, such as measuring and identifying populations and in defined cultures, the evaluation of response of microbial populations to perturbations, complementation between different strains, contaminations and competition. Priority also should be given to research leading to the reduction of reliance on antibiotics and directed evolution of microbes on feedstocks.

Bioproducts production in bioenergy conversion systems

A priority for research identified is chemical and biological conversions to manufacture biobased products that substitute existing petro/fossil based products. This is a priority because value added biobased products provide a technological (and economic) pull for transportation and energy biofuels as part of an integrated biorefinery. For example, high-value bioproducts may reduce the overall costs of a bioenergy conversion system by providing a high-value co-product that supports the cost structure of the biobased energy and transportation fuels.

Integrated processes research

Another important research need is an understanding of integrated processes such as how pretreatment plays into digestability and downstream processes, the physical, chemical, and structural transformations within each step of the conversion process, and the analysis, characterization and utilization of process residues all along the value-added chain of conversion from biomass to end products. This area may also include research evaluating the related transportation logistics of materials flowing into and out of conversion plants (including management of resource use (water, energy and petroleum inputs), including quantitative sensing and monitoring systems, and modeling process control and optimization of complex bioprocesses. Development of a systems-biology based metabolomic model of conversion systems is needed to increase our fundamental understanding of critical relationships in these systems. In evaluating the integrated processes, what are the conversion efficiencies and cost of production of the existing platforms (sugar, carboxylic platforms)?

Environmental Impacts Research Priorities

EnvironmentalBiomass production systems may have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. A thorough and fundamental understanding of these impacts is needed as we begin to build this new industry.

Systems-wide environmental impacts analysis

Research priorities in this area include analysis of system-wide environmental impacts (including air quality impacts, public health impacts, water resource availability and impacts, land use change issues, carbon footprint, energy balance, life cycle assessments); Studies needed include a comprehensive air, soil, and water quality analysis (not limited green house gas emissions) for the NE region; Large-scale and farm-scale field trials are needed to assess localized environmental impacts; Studies on the impacts of biochar to northeast marginal soils health are needed. End-use vehicle emissions from biofuels data are needed to estimate health impacts.

Northeast region land use and water resource inventory

New data are needed to assess our current assumptions on carbon sequestration; The Northeast region has rich water resources. The cumulative watershed impacts from large-scale changes in marginal land use need to be analyzed. An inventory is needed that defines the current northeast land-use baseline; Life Cycle Assessment from production of feedstock through processing is needed for material inputs. Development of regional archiving data sharing protocols are needed to leverage long-term agricultural experiments, e.g. Long Term Ecological Research (LTER). Environmental impact analyses needed include life cycle emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, NOX emissions, carbon flow models, energy input and output.

Transportation and Distribution Research Priorities

Transportation logistics includes assessments of impacts to rural roads and development of logical, optimized systems of.moving biomass and end products all along the supply chain from field or forest to the consumer's end use point.

Transportation Infrastructure Impacts

A priority for research includes analysis of loads and requirements (including rural roads and bridges impacts, increased freight impacts, weight restrictions, optimal transport mode analysis (truck, rail, barge)) for a biomass industry including movement of sugars to biorefineries, biofuels to mixing plants and distribution of products to retail locations. Transportation System Design In addition there is a need for transportation system design studies addressing issues such as how mixed feedstocks impact transportation, which transportation modes are best for each feedstock in the Northeast, a re-evaluation of the "50-mile-radius" limit for biomass transportation standard assumption and how this applies to the Northeast; identification and evaluation of seasonal issues; increased efficiency of equipment; computer modeling scenarios. An important aspect of the transport design system is consideration of the existing transportation infrastructure and logistics analysis modeling (e.g., the impacts to road use for smaller local vs. larger centralized biomass processing plants).

Densification and Transportation Mode Analysis

Research is need to assess biomass feedstock densification approaches and transportation options at different levels of densification; Biofuels transport and delivery infrastructure analysis is also needed including assessment of best modes of transportation, identification of specific technological or economic barriers of using one mode versus another (e.g., pipeline issues, barge, rail and truck issues).

Biomass Transportation and Storage Logistics

Biomass is a low density, bulky material. The low density makes biomass costly to ship on a per pound basis. How can the logistics of transporting biomass to conversion facilities be improved, including what is the most efficient method for densification of feedstock?, What is the best transportation mode (truck, rail or barge) for a particular feedstock transport from field or forest to pre-treatment or conversion plants? If conversion plants need a year-round, continuous supply of biomass feedstock, what are the most efficient storage methods and how do storage conditions influence the quality of the feedstock over time? What are the best locations for production of feedstock based on existing transportation infrastructure in the Northeast? What are the best locations for conversion facilities based on transportation efficiency and proximity to population centers. What are the road use and traffic load consequences in the vicinity of feedstock production and feedstock conversion facilities? What are the expected impacts to rural roads?

Social Factors Research Priorities

BiomassA sustainable system will consider and address sustainability from the economic perspective, the environmental perspective and the perspective of societal values. Our policy decisions and market choices reflect these societal values and are a critical area of study in the emerging biobased industries.

Economic impacts

Economic impacts of emerging biomass industry segments and systems is needed (including viability, competitiveness, influence on competing markets for biomass, job creation in various sectors (farming, transportation, logging, biotechnology, supporting industries), Data and modeling are needed for development of robust input-output model analysis of money and material flows, Cost benefit analyses for model supply chain Firm/industry segments are needed as well as systems modeling analysis to assist and evaluate scale alternatives and location alternatives for biorefineries.

Social factors and policy analysis

Priority should be given to studies that address social and policy factors that might include influence of tax incentives, stakeholder attitudes, and that include Northeast region policies such as regional greenhouse gas initiative (RGGI), international land use change data collection and evaluation, cap and trade, evaluation of regulatory barriers to market; Policy analysis is needed of Federal and State and Local regulation barriers for new fuels or fuel mixes, (e.g., certification and testing regulations, ASTM Standards for cellulosic ethanol (E20 and higher), biodiesel (B10 and higher), What are the USDA, EPA, and other air, water and soil amendment regulations, Fire Marshall regulations (flammability at pump) that would need to be satisfied before a new fuel source could reach Northeast Region markets. Impacts of the new biomass industry's influence on food, feed and fiber markets; Assessment of role and influence of Farm Bill, and other Federal instruments; Sustainable Community, building and transportation design; analysis of Smart Grid (overlays the electrical grid with an information and net metering system) and Smart Growth (an approach to managing the suburban sprawl that is encouraged by current economic and land development policies) for the Northeast.

Market analysis

Continue work on integrated systems models at regional, national and global levels; continue to study role of information and consumer preferences on demand for energy products; analysis of risk, public policy and private investment in bioenergy R&D and industrial development; analysis of market incentives for biomass energy and products (energy taxes, carbon markets, green credits); To compare biomass energy and products, a level economic analysis of alternative energy and products sources is needed.

Education, Extension, and Economic Development Outreach Priorities

An important aspect of the Northeast Sun Grant funded programs is providing access to new knowledge and recent advances to stakeholders through education, extension and economic development outreach programs. The following were identified as priorities in this area.

Workforce development

Priorities identified for this category of projects includes work that contributes to biomass industry workforce training, public education and economic development outreach.

Teacher summer sabbaticals and classroom tools

Priority for funding the creation or expansion of bioindustry K-16 teacher summer sabbaticals is recommended.

Opportunities for undergraduate projects

Mini-grant competitions for students for greening campus are recommended as well as conference/workshop grants that are focused on bioenergy education. In addition, there is a need for regional farmer demonstration programs, to demonstrate new equipment, innovations, and to showcase bio-energy farmer success stories.

Demonstration to students, farmers, and local planning experts

Another priority identified is the development of more visual tools and hands-on teaching aids that can be shared in the region to expand outreach for not only teachers and school students but also local town managers as they consider local energy planning; Energy and bioproducts modules that can be used by teachers as well as mobile demonstration units to educate farmers and small land owners are priorities.

Development of outreach tools to assist rural development business planning

Rural development outreach; Rural economic development assessments, plan development including guidelines and forms for completing full economic assessment of biomass opportunities, cash flow plan, competing markets, etc. and logistical assessment (material flows, methods) should be part of the outreach education for rural development assistance with business planning.

Collaborative efforts with other Universities focused on Transportation Research

Collaborative projects with DOT University Training Centers (UTC).