UI researchers turn dead timber that Pine Beetles leave behind into valuable resource

MOSCOW, ID - Pine beetles are killing millions of trees in the U.S. and Canada, and scientists haven't found a way to stop them.

However, researchers at the University of Idaho are making the most of the dead timber that the beetles leave behind.

Palouse reporter Rachel Dubrovin explains how they're turning the dead trees into fuel.

"In the 13 year, there've been 42 million acres of trees killing by bark beetles," said University of Idaho Professor of Forestry and Policy Sciences Jay O'Laughlin.

Tiny beetles like these are causing a massive problem in forests across the nation.

"There are different variety of pine beetles out there, but they all pretty much the same thing," said O'Laughlin. "They eat the live part of the tree, which is just under the bark. Most of the trunk of the tree is deadwood, but just under the bark is the live part. And they go in there and carve these galleries in there."

"We tend to notice it when the foliage has become reddened, and the area of coverage is fairly large," said University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Forest Operations Rob Keefe. "And often, it's too late to treat at that point."

Last week, the University of Idaho and four other colleges in the west received $10 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to figure out the best way to turn the dead timber into bio-fuel.

"You're basically burning the trees under conditions that are anaerobic, in other words, in the absence of oxygen," said O'Laughlin. "So it's in a closed space under very high heat, and you burn the wood."

U of I Professor of Forestry and Policy Sciences Jay O'Laughlin said the process is called fast pyrolysis.

"It's like 800 degrees centigrade," said O'Laughlin. "It's really hot."

And it creates this biochar and hydrocarbon oils.

"This is a really crude grade of something like fuel oil that you could burn in a boiler to heat a building maybe," said O'Laughlin. "But it's very crude, very thick."

Researchers at the U of I said this project is just beginning, but only good things can come of it because they're finding a way to turn waste into a valuable resource.

"We're reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire, creating new markets for sustainable bio-fuels in the region, and creating jobs for foresters and loggers in the state of Idaho," said Keefe.

Colorado State University is the leaders of this research project and it's expected to last for about five years. Other contributors include the University of Montana, Montana State University, The University of Wyoming, The U.S. Forest Service, The National Renewable Energy Lab and Cool Planet Energy Systems.