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WVU part of $10M biofuels projects

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The northeast could help lead the way to a renewable energy-based economy by using marginal agricultural land and reclaimed and abandoned mined land to grow energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast-growing woody plants.

That's the goal of a new research and education project drawing on West Virginia University expertise and supported by a nearly $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The Northeast Woody/Warm-season Biomass Consortium, or NEWBio, led by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, will develop perennial feedstock production systems and supply chains for shrub willow — a short-rotation woody crop — and the warm-season grasses switchgrass and miscanthus. The project will promote the use of marginal farmland and abandoned and reclaimed mine sites so that these crops will not compete for resources with food production.

WVU's participation will be led by Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

"Feedstock development and biomass logistics are the key to the success of biofuel production," Wang said. "This project is aimed at overcoming existing barriers and dramatically increasing the sustainable, cost-effective supply of lignocellulosic biomass, and will help promote the regional research collaborations on sustainable bioenergy in the northeast."

This is the sixth such award made through USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, aimed at developing regional, renewable energy markets, generating rural jobs and decreasing America's dependence on foreign oil.

In September 2011, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced five major Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grants for the formation of five regional systems in the Pacific Northwest, the northwest, northern states, southern states and the southeast, valued at $136 million.

"The creation of this biofuel system will significantly contribute to improving rural prosperity and job creation in the northeast by funding effective public- and private-sector partnerships," Vilsack said. "Overall, the six regional systems supported by USDA and the Obama Administration represent an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry."

Consortium partners include Cornell University, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Delaware State University, Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Drexel University, University of Vermont, USDA-ARS's Eastern Regional Research Center and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

Spanning West Virginia to New England, the project also will engage state and local agencies, citizen groups, environmental and economic development organizations, and companies in fields such as crop genetics and fuel manufacturing and use.

NEWBio will address technical issues in three areas: human systems; plant production and genetics; and harvest, preprocessing and logistics. Integrated with these technical thrusts will be teams looking at sustainability systems, safety and health, extension and educational programs and leadership and evaluation.