Graduate Spotlight: Jason Cutshall
Expected Graduation: Winter 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Forest Resources
Other Degrees: M.S. in Forestry, Master’s in Business Administration, B.S. in Forestry
Jason Cutshall, a doctoral student in Forestry, has spent more than 10 years practicing sustainable forest management in the Southeast.
Today, he is combining his business savvy and forestry experience to produce renewable energy economically from wood at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.
“The United States’ need to use clean, renewable energy from alternative sources, such as woody biomass, is widely understood,” he said. “My research is examining ways to make the process of harvesting woody biomass for energy more economical from an operational standpoint.”
Forest management creates wood by-products, including tree limbs, stumps, needles and leaves. Instead of discarding these resources, the forestry industry can use leftover woody materials, known as biomass, to produce clean energy.
Along with his graduate adviser, Dr. Dale Greene, Cutshall is researching renewable energy practices that improve forestry operations for businesses.
“If a researcher delivers a product that does not have a positive impact on people’s businesses and lives, they will not be asked back to the table,” he said.
“Warnell and Dr. Greene are always at the table.”
According to Cutshall, the forestry industry will use woody biomass for renewable energy only if the entire process is economically viable from harvest to production. Otherwise, forestry and logging businesses will not be interested.
“My research will offer insight on ways to harvest woody biomass in the field to maximize value for renewable energy stakeholders,” he said.
Cutshall’s research begins by identifying the properties of wood biomass that has dried up to eight weeks in the field. His unique method for collecting field data involves sampling wood fragments as an industrial wood chipper hurls wood fragments into the back of a van. Using a six-inch PVC pipe with an elbow, Cutshall reaches into a flying woody debris stream to sample wood chips.
“There is a bit of an adrenaline rush associated with collecting chips from a 600 horsepower chipper when they are being blown into a van at 90 mph,” he said. “It is a very dirty job, but a satisfying one indeed.”
In the last field study, Cutshall and his colleagues collected wood chip samples from 87 truck loads. After gathering the wood debris samples, he can assess the amount of energy value added to the raw wood materials when ash and moisture content are naturally reduced in the field.
Cutshall weighs each sample in the field to assess its green weight before sending the samples to the Pete Phillips Laboratory for Nutrient Cycling Science. Warnell researchers dry the wood chips at 103 degrees Celsius for 48 hours to obtain the wood’s moisture content. After drying, the wood chips are further analyzed to determine their energy value and chemical properties.
The laboratory analysis reveals how to maximize the value of woody debris for different harvesting methods.
Ultimately, Cutshall hopes his research will increase domestic clean energy production and reduce the consumption of foreign energy.
“Reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy, while still meeting our country’s tremendous energy demand, has been a hot topic over the past several years,” he said. “Generating energy from wood in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner will be critical in achieving this goal.”
After graduation, Cutshall plans to pursue a career path in academia or industry where he can continue to improve forestry practices.
“A career as a university forestry professor is enticing, because I enjoy advancing the practice of forestry and helping to develop future natural resource professionals,” said Cutshall.
“I am not ruling out a return to the forest industry either,” he said. “Given the increasing demand for wood for energy and traditional forest products, the forest industry will need people who are more specialized in forest operations.”
Story by Ben Benson; Photography by Dr. Dale Greene