Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 1 - USDA ARS Biomass Research Centers Customer & Research Planning Workshop

A Regional Approach to Biofuels

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) Biomass Research Centers Customer & Research Planning Workshop kicked off today (March 15) in Denver Colorado. Senior ARS program leaders Evert Byington and Jeffrey Steiner delivered the opening remarks. Kevin Kephart of South Dakota State University and Sun Grant Initiative delivered the kick off talk titled “Bioenergy Issues and Research Needs”. His talk addressed key areas of research needed to further biofuels and set the tone for the rest of the workshop. We then got a brief overview of the biofuel centers by Dr. Steiner and a quick run down on what was expected. The regional biofuels centers are tasked with developing region specific feedstocks and providing stakeholders with the needed information to rapidly advance adoption/implementation. Dr. Steiner explicitly outlined the goal of the workshop was for stakeholder input, and encouraged ARS staff to allow industry representatives to do most of the talking in the breakout sessions.

We then broke out into our regional groups. My group, primarily composed of individuals from the Western regions, focused primarily on oil seed crops. Members included people from industry, academia, national labs, ARS, and other federal agencies. We spent the entire day discussing key areas of research. Some of the areas we identified included: Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) standardization, increased access to economically viable feedstocks, putting fallow land back into production, and basic agronomic analysis of new candidates for oil seed crops such as camelina. Other groups also identified similar goals, with the need to standardize LCA analysis a central theme for all groups involved. It appeared industry was most concerned with using LCA analysis as a litmus test rather than a broader sustainable approach.

In my group soil quality definitely took a back burner. I was the only spokesman for soil quality and issues of converting marginal land into production, tillage, and residue removal. At the end of the day, however, it was reassuring to hear other groups also identified concerns over soil quality. One of the other groups even directly charged ARS with the task of developing guidelines not, rather than recommendations, when it came to residue removal for biofuels. By offering this workshop, I believe all the critical areas needed for research for biofuels were covered. Hearing industrial opinions offered new insights on the need to tackle key issues such as logistics if we are to move forward. I look forward to tomorrow’s sessions, where we can offer direct solutions for the problems addressed in today’s sessions.

This is the first post in a series of entries by Barbara Fricks covering the USDA ARS Biomass Research Centers Customer & Research Planning Workshop in Denver, Colorado. Barbara is a PhD Student at Colorado State University and an NSF IGERT Multidisciplinary Approaches to Sustainable BioEnergy fellow. She is also a former ASA, CSSA, SSSA Science Policy Intern.

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