The way forestry graduate student Lucas Wells sees it, there are two options when it comes to trees killed by mountain pine beetles.

“Use it or lose it,” Wells said. “That pretty much sums it up.”

Wells is one of three students working on biomass projects with Woody Chung, associate professor of forest operations in the College of Forestry and Conservation. The team just recieved $1 million to study how to convert dead, commercially useless trees into biofuel.  

The University of Montana is one of eight universities and organizations that received a combined $10 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the hurdles in using beetle-killed trees as a sustainable source for bioenergy.

He said his research will rely heavily on field work, which he expects to begin next summer.

“These kinds of (projects) can be easily integrated into forestry classes,” Chung said. “I plan to have students for field studies next year.”

But there will be more than just UM students working on the project, which is a collaborative effort spanning three states.

“There’s a group of scientists for this project all with different components,” Chung said. “The component I will work on is to figure how to efficiently —economically efficiently — deliver biomass feedstock to a facility for conversion.”

Chung said his job includes figuring out the most cost efficient way to harvest and transport the biomass of beetle-kill trees to a biofuel production facility, where it can be converted into energy.

“How to link these two dots together is my job,” he said.

Beetle-kill trees are virtually useless in the commercial sense. Mountain pine beetles lay eggs in tree cores, and their larvae consume the tree’s nutrients for months until they mature. The dead trees are too weak to be used as timber for construction, so they often end up rotting in the woods, which leaves the door open for raging wildfires, Chung said.

“So the question is, why don’t we utilize those fuels to produce energy and replace fossil fuels?” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

And there is no lack of beetle-kill epidemic, which has affected more than 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996, said Leana Schelvan, communications director for the College of Forestry and Conservation.

Mountain pine beetle outbreaks tend to come in waves, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Beetle activity spiked in 2007 and has steadily climbed as a result of mild winters and light precipitation, which can kill off a new generation of mountain pine beetles.

This grant is the first of its kind to study beetle-kill across state borders. Researchers from universities across Montana, Idaho and Colorado will collaborate on the 5-year project.

“This one is unique because it’s a collaborative group and because of the scope of the work they’re going to do,” Schelvan said. “It’s pretty big in the scale and number of partners.”

The project doesn’t just involve research—the grant also establishes an education outreach program. Beth Covitt, research assistant professor in UM’s environmental studies program, will lead the outreach program in Missoula for K-12 and University classes.

“We’ll be teaching them to trace matter and energy, and to understand carbon cycles,” Covitt said. “There will be a great emphasis on interweaving the content and practices (of the grant research).”