The grant proposal, written by Dr. Scott Pearson, professor of biology, is titled Modeling Site Suitability for Biofuels Production in Western North Carolina. Pearson’s proposal was one of 21 submitted across the state and one of only four which were approved for funding. According to Pearson, the grant project has at least three goals: to identify lands in western North Carolina that are suitable for biofuel production; to evaluate the economic feasibility of biofuel production for specific locations in the region; and to research how biofuel production might affect conservation efforts in the area.
In a region where family farms are declining in number, Pearson said the research project may help determine whether biofuel production can offer a path to small farm profitability. “Because many biofuels can grow on ‘marginal soils’ that are often not in use for other crops, a farmer could potentially grow biofuel crops in addition to his or her current crops and tip the balance for that farm in favor of profitability,” Pearson said.Profitability ensures that more land remains in farmland, and less is turned over to development. In this way, biofuels production could have a positive effect on both farmland protection and biodiversity conservation, Pearson said.
“When it comes to conservation of wildlife, farmlands are certainly more beneficial than housing developments,” Pearson said. “Also, many biofuel crops, like fast-growing trees, provide wildlife habitat during their growing cycle, and those croplands provide connecting corridors for wildlife to move between existing patches of forest.”
Pearson will work with both graduate and undergraduate students to create a spatial model in a geographic information system (GIS). The model will incorporate both ecological data, such as soils and wildlife habitats, and economic data, such as crop prices and transportation costs. Pearson’s research team will collaborate with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (www.appalachian.org)
The Biofuels Center 2012-2013 grants program-Strengthening Feedstocks, Production, and Products in Western North Carolina-is supported by funds from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Clean Air Settlement that were directed to the Center by the North Carolina General Assembly in the 2012 legislative session. Awards were determined through a competitive, peer-review process. Expert panels comprised of industry, nonprofits, and state agency representatives reviewed applications and made funding recommendations for approval by the Biofuels Center Executive Committee.
Western North Carolina holds boundless potential for biofuels and bioproducts commercialization, said Biofuels Center president and CEO Steven Burke. “The value of this concerted effort cannot be overstated,” he said. “This will further position the state to grow jobs, secure its energy future, and enhance our environment. Moreover, that the collaborators will invest nearly $400,000 in this project demonstrates the region’s firm commitment to developing new sectors and new economies.” In addition to Mars Hill College, awards were made to North Carolina State University and Caldwell Green Commission. Other grants awarded were:
* $130,593 (North Carolina State University) Woody Biomass In-Field Drying Techniques for Thermochemical Conversion; This project will investigate in-field drying techniques in western North Carolina to improve woody biomass delivery systems.
* $102,000 (Caldwell Green Commission) Crude Glycerin Refining and Purification; This project will produce higher-value, technical-grade glycerin from crude glycerine derived during biodiesel production.
* $28,000 (North Carolina State University) Availability of Woody Biomass for Biofuels in Western North Carolina; This project will assess availability of soft hardwoods for potential facility locations in western North Carolina.
Mars Hill College is a private, liberal arts institution offering over 30 baccalaureate degrees and one graduate degree in elementary education. Founded in 1856 by Baptist families of the region, the campus is located just 20 minutes north of Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina