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Dr. Sabrina Spatari to lead Drexel’s Participation in a USDA Grant to Research Biofuels

October 31, 2012

Dr. Sabrina Spatari of the Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering (CAEE) Department will represent Drexel University on a recent research grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which will be a collaborative effort amongst stakeholders to develop biomass supply chains for the production of liquid transportation and aviation biofuels in the US Northeast. This is the sixth award of this type, made through USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs, and decreasing America's dependence on foreign oil. The award was announced recently by USDA Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Pennsylvania State University will lead the NEWBio (Northeast Woody/Warm season Biomass) Consortium consisting of the following organizations: Penn State University, Drexel University, Cornell University, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, West Virginia University, University of Vermont, American Refining Group, Ernst Conservation Seeds, Case New Holland, Praxair, Inc., Idaho National Lab, Mascoma Biofuels, Primus Green Energy, Double A Willow, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Aloterra Energy, Oak Ridge National Lab and USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The total amount awarded is $10 million and Drexel’s portion is $145,000.

The NEWBio Consortium will focus on the non-food biomass sources of willow, miscanthus and switchgrass, all perennial plants that thrive in the Northeast region in an environment once dominated by pasture and forage-based dairy production. Perennial plants are more suitable to biomass production (than annual plants, e.g. corn) because they are more adaptable to different slopes and soils and have more tolerant root systems. The Northeast region’s mild temperatures and high humidity lend to biomass production that has high water use efficiency. Perennial bioenergy systems are also less prone to fluctuations in yield due to biotic and abiotic stresses than annual crops.

Through an integrated research, education and extension approach, the Consortium will address the entire biofuel production spectrum, including crop genetic development, harvesting, storage and processing techniques and sustainable production systems. Focused education and outreach will also be provided to students, citizens, landowners and policymakers to increase their understanding of biomass alternatives – including the social, economic, and environmental impacts of sustainable bioenergy in the Northeast.

The overall goals of this biomass research are to develop sustainable production practices to improve yield by 25 percent and reduce costs by 20 percent and work towards reaching the The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 production target of 36 billion gallons/yr of biofuel by 2022.

Dr. Spatari’s research for the Consortium will focus on developing life cycle models to estimate the environmental impacts of multiple value-added energy products derived from biomass-feedstocks produced in the U.S. Northeast. Those products include three forms of densified biomass (pyrolysis oil, torrefied biomass, and pellets), converted to jet fuels, biofuels, and combined heat and power (CHP) since final use of the biomass will have location-dependent economics. Dr. Spatari will collaborate with Penn State University and USDA-ARS agronomists to develop Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) models for the novel biomass species (willow, miscanthus, and switchgrass) emerging in the US Northeast agricultural landscape.

Sarah Colins
Research Development Coordinator
Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering