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A Giant Crop-Scanner Is Turning Heads in Arizona

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

With its 30-ton frame and 50-foot-high catwalk, the newest scanner for measuring crop plants in Maricopa, Arizona, can be seen for miles. It looms over a tract the length of two football fields and moves along steel rails.

“When people saw this big apparatus being built here, they started asking if we were going to be looking for space aliens,” says Jeffrey W. White, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist with the Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa. Rather than studying the heavens, the scanner is measuring the individual characteristics of thousands of energy sorghum plants growing underneath it. The effort could play an outsized role in meeting the Nation’s future energy needs.

Tribal partnerships fuel sustainable aviation

USDA celebrates National Native American Heritage Month in November with a blog series focused on USDA’s support of Tribal Nations and highlighting a number of our efforts throughout Indian Country and Alaska. Follow along on the USDA blog.

Alaska Airlines will conduct a demonstration flight in 2016 using 1,000 gallons of jet fuel made from forest scraps. 

The aviation biofuel was derived from twigs and small branches that would otherwise have been burned in slash piles after timber harvest. These forest residuals were provided by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe via the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance Tribal Partnership Program (NARA TPP).  TPP and other NARA partnerships are made possible by a $39.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  

Fueling our Future, from Wood to Wing

U.S. airline carriers collectively used more than 16 billion gallons of jet fuel in 2014. Given growing concerns over energy independence and the environment, commercial airlines are looking for secure and reliable alternative jet fuels that reduce global emissions.

To address this problem, researchers at Washington State University formed the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) with biofuels company Gevo, Alaska Airlines, and several other partners across academia, industry, and government. As a result of NARA’s efforts, made possible by a $39.6 million grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Alaska Airlines is planning to use 1,000 gallons of NARA-produced biofuel in a demonstration flight scheduled for 2016.

Bioenergy, Bioproducts Education Program Builds Student Confidence, Equips Educators

Being an educator is in Morina Ricablanca’s blood. Growing up in a family of teachers in the Philippines, she knew she would someday pursue a career in education. Ricablanca participated in an outreach program assisting troubled youth while attending Manuel L. Quezon University Law School in Manila. She realized then it was time to join the family business of teaching.

Her decision has led her to a successful career working with special needs students at East Hoke Middle School in rural North Carolina. Ricablanca was named the “2014 Teacher of the Year” for her school district, partly due to her work helping three of her students win the school’s science fair.

Study Finds Increasing Wood Pellet Demand Boosts Forest Growth, Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Creates Jobs

An industry that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase forest growth, and create jobs sounds too good to be true.  But that is the reality of the emerging wood pellets market in the Southern U.S.  That conclusion is supported by independent economic assessments of wood bioenergy, including a recent study that specifically focused on European pellet demand conducted by researchers at Duke and North Carolina State Universities.  Those researchers found that increasing demand for wood pellets resulted in more forest area, more forest investment, large greenhouse gas reductions, and little change in forest carbon inventories.

So, why is there concern?

Some critics have recently argued that land used to produce biomass for energy should instead be permanently protected as forests. They say that harvesting biomass from forests reduces forest carbon stocks. Instead, they claim that the best way to increase carbon storage is to reduce demand for renewable products that come from the land.

Transferring Dead Trees from Source of Wildfire Fuel to Biofuel

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Trees killed by bark beetles have, for years, been a source of fuel for forest fires.  Now, those very trees are being turned into biofuel and biobased products.

This vast bioenergy resource—approximately 46 million acres—requires no cultivation, circumvents food-versus-fuel concerns, and may have a highly favorable carbon balance compared other forestry feedstocks. The problem, however, is that beetle-killed biomass is typically located far from urban industrial centers in relatively inaccessible areas, which means transportation costs are a key barrier to widespread utilization of this vast resource.

Smart Federal Partnerships Build Our Biofuels Future

Here at USDA, we believe collaboration is the key to helping us address our nation's most pressing needs, like energy. Building on partnerships in both the public and private sphere, we are leveraging resources to achieve and impact far greater than USDA could ever achieve alone. During this year’s Agricultural Outlook Forum, one breakout session concerned the importance of the bioeconomy in the areas of national security, growth potential, job creation, reduced dependence on oil, and environmental benefits. The session also stressed the need for partnerships to contribute to a growing the bioeconomy as it moved to center stage during the 21st century.  One of the speakers at the session was Jonathan Male, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), U.S. Department of Energy.

Cross-posted from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy blog:

The Grass is Cleaner on the Other Side

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Liquid fuel, charcoal, and electric power are all possible byproducts of biomass feedstocks. But what if there was a feedstock that not only produced bioenergy, but acted as a greenhouse gas “sink” as well? According to Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research, there is: bioenergy sorghum.

Each region contains locally generated biomass feedstocks, ranging from grains to animal byproducts. Sorghum is a group of grasses with about 30 species, which can be used in a variety of bioenergy production processes, like starch-to-ethanol, sugar-to-ethanol, and plants-to-bioenergy.

Our Changing Climate - Third National Climate Assessment Released

The Third National Climate Assessment Release (NCA) report was released today.  The report was written by 240 authors who worked in author teams reflecting their expertise, who also selected additional contributing authors, including several scientists and experts from USDA.

The report is similar in many respects to previous climate assessments.  The authors conclude that climate change is already happening across the United States. The report documents ways climate change is altering agriculture and forestry systems across the country and evaluates how these systems are likely to be affected in the future.

The authors found that climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past forty years and are projected to increase over the next twenty five years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock.

Secretary's Column: New Farm Bill and 2015 Budget Expand Opportunity in Rural America

This week, President Obama released USDA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which supports our ongoing work to create jobs and opportunity in rural America.

The budget builds on the new opportunities available to us through the recently-passed 2014 Farm Bill to achieve reform and results for the American taxpayer; foster opportunity for the men and women living, working and raising families in rural America; and support innovation through strategic, future-focused investments.

My team at USDA has been hard at work identifying everything that will be required—regulations, guidance and other activities—to develop a plan to implement the new Farm Bill.