Researchers in Iowa City are exploring the possibility of turning the state’s threatened ash trees into biomass fuel. A tiny insect that kills ash trees may present an opportunity for the University of Iowa’s biomass program.

Ferman Milster, principal engineer for the UI’s Office of Sustainability, says they hope to take the threatened or dying trees, process them into wood chips, mix it with coal, and make steam and electricity in the campus power plant. “There may be an opportunity where we would pay something for the chips,” Milster says. “We’re starting to contact municipalities, tree service companies that may be involved removing trees from private ownership…and learn what their plans are to move that wood once the tree is down.”

The Iowa City campus is already powered, in part, by oat casings and wood chips that are blended with coal. Milster believes trees standing in the path of the destructive Emerald Ash Borer could provide another source of energy. “As an alternative to just letting the wood decay, or landfilling it, energy recovery provides an opportunity to really do some good environmentally,” Milster says. “It’s an ideal use for the wood if we can make the economics work.”

The University of Iowa has a goal of using 40 percent renewable energy by 2020. It’s estimated that Iowa has up to 60-million ash trees.