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Orchard-Insect Ecology, Biofuels

Posted by | May 25, 2011

Entomologists Open New Frontiers to Aid Sustainable Future for Fruit Growers

WSU entomologist Vince Jones
WSU entomologist Vince Jones

In response to a study that found seven years to be the average period from the finish of research to its implementation, WSU entomologist and behavioral ecologist Vince Jones shook his head. “We just don’t have that kind of time.”

Jones’ urgency is based on two pressing issues affecting the long-term sustainability of the Washington tree fruit industry. The first is a line in the sand drawn in 1996 by the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act. The FQP Act charged the Environmental Protection Agency with re-evaluating all pesticides. After its investigation of organophosphate pesticides, the EPA ordered that some be phased out as harmful to the health of humans — especially children — and the environment.

“These pesticides were known factors in orchard systems,” Jones said. “We know how they work. What we’ve got now are lots of alternative materials that need to be investigated for their pest-control efficacy and for their effects on the stability of the entire orchard system.”

The other looming issue is global competition putting pressure on Washington’s 100-million-box per year apple industry, the biggest contributor to the state’s $6 billion per year tree fruit industry. Costs must be minimized in order to sustain the state’s reputation for producing the world’s best apples. WSU researchers are working on the economic sustainability of the tree fruit industry from several directions at once. Some are working on automation, others on genetics and the breeding of tasty new varieties of apple and cherry. Still others, like Jones and the other entomologists at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, are working on insect problems.

Building on the decades of pioneering research in integrated pest management, or IPM, Jones is a lead scientist on a project striving to push the frontiers of our understanding of the complex ecology at play among insects in fruit tree orchards. Jones is an expert on biological control, a strategy that seeks to encourage the natural insect enemies of orchard pests to flourish and be nourished by the bugs that would otherwise damage the fruit. Coupled with IPM strategies, such as dispersing tiny amounts of insect pheromones in order to confuse male apple coddling moths — the bane of apple orchardists — and disrupting the moths’ reproductive cycle, the entomologists have developed a mighty arsenal of pest management strategies.

“What we’re finding is that some of these new, post-organophosphate pesticides play havoc with biocontrols and IPM,” he said. “But we’ve made enough advances in IPM and biocontrol strategies that we’re able to look at reducing application amounts and more precisely applying the pesticides we still need to use.”

Part engineering, part biochemistry, and part psychology, Jones and his colleagues have developed technologies to measure and channel bug behavior. Using lures and attractants, the researchers are able to capture a real-time picture of insect life in the orchard. These “smart” insect traps transmit their data to a computer where it is combined with gigabytes of other information pouring in from a statewide network of weather stations. The result is a decision-aid system, or DAS (das.wsu.edu), providing growers with that most powerful asset of all, knowledge.

WSU’s DAS is accessed via a web browser. Users establish profiles and customize information for particular locations. Insect phenology — the sequence and timing of events, such as molting and mating, in the life of an organism — is incredibly complex because it involves highly dynamic systems such as weather and insect-plant interactions. Decades of data collection, though, have resulted in a tool that allows growers to predict the future with a remarkably high degree of accuracy. With real-time weather data, pest outbreaks can be predicted based on such variables as temperature and precipitation. Thus armed, growers can move quickly with a measured and targeted response.

From zero users five years ago, Jones said that DAS is now used in the management of nearly all of the 225,000 acres of Washington orchards.But the DAS is still a work in progress, he pointed out. Jones and his colleagues are preparing for major “upgrades” in pest management strategies. In the middle of a five-year project funded by a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jones said he and his colleagues, some at WSU, others in Oregon and California, are tackling the job of getting their past two years’ worth of research into the hands of the those who need it to stay competitive: the growers.

“We’re going to compress years of outreach into just a couple,” Jones said. “That’s possible because we have an incredibly sophisticated industry that is eager to adopt strategies that will sustain their competitiveness and the environment.”

Brian Clark, WSU CAHNRS MNEC

Learn more about Jones’ research by visiting http://bit.ly/vincejones.

Check out the web-based decision-aid system by visiting http://bit.ly/wsudas.

Learn more about the wide range of tree fruit research and outreach at WSU, including the campaign for tree fruit, by visiting http://bit.ly/mGtmnv.

WSU, Port of Benton Research Project to Turn Organic Waste into Biofuels

Birgitte Ahring
Birgitte Ahring

An innovative idea for making advanced biofuels such as jet fuel, diesel and gasoline from regional resources is moving forward with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. “This process will demonstrate the use of local biomass from our community and our farmers and it will answer questions across the state,” said Diahann Howard, Port of Benton economic development director. “It will also give more options locally to use waste for energy and not stockpile ag waste, which can create hazardous and/or unappealing situations.”

The team of Washington State University Tri-Cities, the Port of Benton, Clean-Vantage LLC, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will conduct the $1.5 million “BioChemCat” pilot project in the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities under the leadership of Birgitte K. Ahring, director of the WSU Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy and Battelle Distinguished Professor.

BioChemCat refers to the biorefinery process that uses both biochemical and thermochemical processes to make biofuels and biochemicals. “The concept is feedstock agnostic; it doesn’t really care what kind of biomass you use,” Ahring explained. “It can use all kinds of feedstock: municipal waste, vineyard waste, feedlot manure, woody material, and ag waste like corn stalks, straw, or corn cobs after the kernels have been removed. It could be implemented all over the world.”

The project involves the following other new twists on biofuels production:

  • The waste can be wet. Many biofuels processes first require that the waste be dried, which can be expensive and time consuming.
  • The process can be operated in a spoke-and-hub manner, where the initial part of the process (the creation of distillates) is done in small-scale local facilities, while the final upgrading into advanced fuels is done in a few specialized hubs.
  • Both parts of the process combine new breakthrough knowledge that allows for reducing the final fuel cost.
  • The process is expected to be high-yield. For example, it potentially could make more than 70 gallons of jet fuel per ton of dry materials. This is much higher than other processes.
  • The process can be operated to produce gasoline, diesel or jet fuel depending on the need. The technology thus represents an example of producing “drop-in replacement fuel” for oil-based products.

“We think we will be capable of demonstrating within two years that the BioChemCat process has major value,” Ahring said.

–Melissa O’Neil Purdue, WSU Tri-Cities

WSU Tri-Cities is located along the scenic Columbia River in Richland. Established in 1989 with upper division and graduate programs, WSU Tri-Cities expanded in 2007 to a four-year undergraduate campus offering 17 bachelors, 13 masters, and seven doctoral degrees. Learn more about the most diverse campus in the WSU system at www.tricity.wsu.edu.