Conference focused on improving trees for biofuels

Southern forests are expected to face increasing demands from the emerging biomass-to-bioenergy market, as well as the existing forest products industry. That was the message presented recently at the 31st Southern Forest Tree Improvement Conference in Biloxi.

Keynote speaker and Mississippi State Sen. Giles Ward encouraged the more than 100 government, university and industry representatives in attendance to continue to develop genetic technologies that can provide greater woody biomass yields using less land and time.

Organized by Mississippi State University's College of Forest Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, conference attendees discussed combining various biotechnologies with tree breeding programs to provide sustainable woody biomass production systems for the southeastern U.S.

"New bioenergy/biofuels companies have become interested in this area of the country because of our ability to rapidly grow and harvest trees on a sustainable basis, and our ability to increase yields using traditional and contemporary genetic approaches," said Randy Rousseau, MSU associate professor in forestry and conference co-organizer.

"Forest geneticists must continue to develop new tree varieties to produce woody biomass in the shortest amount of time, while decreasing inputs and increasing yields per acre," he said.

Researchers from 13 universities and a number of companies presented their results relating to growth, stress resistance and developing new resources and technologies for more efficient and effective tree breeding to increase biomass yields for a range of forest tree species.

"Technologies to enable faster tree growth have already been developed," said Cetin Yuceer, MSU assistant forestry professor and conference co-organizer. "We just have to get these technologies into the hands of the forest land owners and managers."

Tim Eggeman, chief technology officer and co-founder of ZeaChem, a Colorado-based cellulosic ethanol company, reported that long-term contracts with industrial-sized as well as small- to medium-sized biomass growers are necessary to sustain refineries.

ZeaChem is currently building a ligno-cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. This refinery will use mostly hybrid poplar feedstock grown by GreenWood Resources, a large tree-farm operator in the northwestern U.S.
Landowners, such as GreenWood Resources, are expected to benefit from the emergence of biofuels companies.

"Each biorefinery requires about one million tons of biomass per year," said Rousseau. "New biomass companies will be looking to private forest landowners to fill some of this need."

In Mississippi, Texas-based Kior will be using southern pine, which fits with its operation in terms of quantity and quality of woody biomass. For the Kior process, high lignin content is desirable, and it is naturally available in southern yellow pine. Kior will obtain much of its feedstock from planted forests sustainably managed by Weyerhaeuser.

"As other companies begin to produce biofuels, there may be specific traits or species that better fit their operations," said Dana Nelson, Forest Service research geneticist and another conference organizer.

"Landowners may have to adjust what they are growing to fill the needs of the biofuel industry," he added, citing as an example Northeast landowners who might grow short-rotation hardwoods that are high biomass yielding, resistant to disease and insects, tolerant of drought, easily processed, among other traits.

"With this fledgling industry, the biomass feedstocks may be different, including southern yellow pine, fast growing hardwoods such as poplar or sycamore or large grasses such as miscanthus or switchgrass," Yuceer said.

"In the future, it will be important for groups similar to this one, to meet and discuss the needs of the industry and determine what varieties of forest trees will be required and how best to produce them," Yuceer added.

In addition to MSU's College of Forest Resources and the Forest Service, other conference sponsors included the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, MSU's Forest and Wildlife Research Center and several forestry and bioenergy companies.

Karen Brasher | College of Forest Resources

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