CMU grads want to use blighted industrial, residential sites to produce bio-fuel crops

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
From left, Matthew Ciccone, Chris Koch, Patrick Bondi and Andrew Butcher, of GTECH -- Growth Through Energy and Community Health -- have planted switchgrass on this field at the former LTVF Steel site in Hazelwood.
By Bill Toland
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Occupying desk space where mounds of paperwork might otherwise have been were instead mounds of dirt of varying tints and textures. It's the first clue that the GTECH Strategies teammates are up to something unusual in their austere Oakland office -- they want to turn Pittsburgh's brownfields green, and they want the harvested greenery to power our vehicles.

GTECH -- Growth Through Energy and Community Health -- is a pilot-stage Carnegie Mellon University spin-off conceived by three recent graduates of the H. John Heinz School of Public Policy. The principals -- Andrew Butcher, Matthew Ciccone and Chris Koch -- are joined by principal and consultant Nathaniel Doyno, head of Steel City Biofuels, which brokers deals between makers and users of biofuels.

This ambitious foursome, along with a sprinkling of interns and employees, hopes to remediate blighted industrial and residential lots into fertile soil, to be used for planting biofuel crops.

"It's a proven technology, but in an unproven environment," said Mr. Butcher, 27. "The idea of growing energy crops is not necessarily a new one; the idea of growing them on distributed sites on vacant land, in an urban context, is kind of a new idea."

Kind of. It's happening elsewhere, in dribs and drabs. Monroeville's Cardinal Resources plants poplar trees, which suck up toxic waste, at manufacturing sites around the country, but doesn't convert those plants into fuels. In Los Angeles, a design team funded by the Annenberg Foundation has turned a 32-acre rail yard into a massive cornfield and garden. But that project, dubbed "Not a Cornfield," is more urban artwork than laboratory.

The closest parallel can be found in Michigan, where Michigan State University researchers are turning a 2-acre dump site into land for biodiesel and ethanol crops.

But GTECH, a nonprofit that sprang out of a master's thesis, is hoping to bring all of the divergent threads together, stitching a strategy that will cleanse contaminated industrial land, occupy vacant urban plots and produce renewable fuels, the last of which happens to be one of the hot political topics du jour.

Test crops already have been planted. At the former LTV Steel site in Hazelwood, the GTECH crew has taken over six barren acres of fill and planted hybrid poplar trees, switchgrass and sunflowers.

The first two can be reduced into cellulosic ethanol -- that is, ethanol that isn't corn- or grain-based -- while sunflowers become conventional biodiesel.

Why these crops? One of the problems with corn-based ethanol, now the primary source of the gasoline additive, is that putting good corn into gasoline means that there's less of it for human consumption or feeding cows, leading to price spikes in beef, milk, corn fructose and corn itself. That's why "switchgrass is the future of ethanol production," said Mr. Butcher.

One early hurdle for the GTECH foursome -- public policy grads don't gain a great deal of horticulture training. So they've turned to the local experts.

"Of course, they didn't have any background in how to grow the crops," said Deno De Ciantis, director of Allegheny County's Penn State Cooperative Extension, a public farming and gardening resource. "There are some things they have to learn, so they [don't] waste a lot of time doing things trial and error."

They have to learn, for example, about soil quality, which explains the mounds of dirt on the desks in CMU's Hamburg Hall. Those samples came from vacant lots in East Liberty, where homes used to stand. GTECH soon will know what contaminants, if any, are in the soil, and which crops will best work to purge the soil of whatever resides in it.

The residential component is the second prong of GTECH's plan. In Pittsburgh alone, there are 14,600 vacant lots. Aided by the East Liberty Development Inc. group and staked to $20,000 by the Sprout Fund, a 6-year-old group that finances community projects, GTECH will begin planting on the three East Liberty home lots later this summer.

Those lots will host brassica plants -- a form of mustard seed -- as well as sunflowers and poplars, a hardy, fast-growing tree that takes root in fallow land.

"We're not growing on even farmland, which is hard enough to grow on," said Ms. Koch, 33. "We're growing on vacant properties, which are usually demolished houses that have brick and glass and cement and rebar and all kinds of terrible things. [Crop] quality is going to be a concern," especially in the first years.

It's a concern at Michigan State, too. Will the end product meet industry standards -- and, should they come to pass, federal standards -- for what makes usable biofuel? Will the contaminant remnants affect crop yield? The answers to those questions will determine whether GTECH, or ventures like it, can be self-sustaining moneymakers.

Waiting on the answers is not only GTECH, but also Charles Cross, president of the North Side's United Oil Co., which used to make industrial lubricants, but now also produces fuel from animal fats and vegetable oils.

If someone can figure out how to make it all work, with an output that yields more energy than it consumes in creation, the biocrops will be, well, cropping up everywhere, Mr. Cross predicted.

"You're going to see a lot more land, whether it's a brownfield or otherwise, get utilized for crops like that. I wouldn't be surprised to someday see all the highway grass be switchgrass instead," he said. Rather than paying PennDOT workers to mow grass along the sides of highways, farmers or biofuel companies might bid for the rights to harvest the switchgrass, which sprouts perennially and grows well in poor soil and cooler climates.

There is the question, as with all biofuel ventures, of whether the ambition exceeds the science. While scientists agree that most any plant has a better theoretical energy yield than corn, the science of cellulosic ethanol is still years behind the grain- and oil-based diesel. Both fuel processes require extracting fermentable sugars from the feedstock, but doing so from biomass -- switchgrass, tree bark, paper pulp, sugar cane or even sawdust -- is still economically inefficient. Some scientists worry that the final cellulosic ethanol product is too diluted for practical use.

But as science advances, extraction techniques likely will improve, and GTECH, if it's still around, may be well-positioned to pounce. If so, it will join a small cluster of Pittsburgh firms, including United Oil, Steel City Biofuels and Fossil Free Fuel, in exploring energy's new frontier, spinning straw into gold.

"There are a lot of people thinking about it," said Mr. Doyno, 23, the Steel City Biofuels executive. "GTECH has a strategy that quite frankly has a lot of market due diligence behind it."


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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