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Research on Hazelnuts Might Reap Big Rewards

May 26–PLATTSMOUTH, Neb. — If the folks at the Arbor Day Foundation go a little nutty talking about hazelnut trees, it’s because they just might be on the verge of producing a phenomenal hybrid.

Research by the foundation, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Rutgers State University of New Jersey and Oregon State is on track to develop a second-generation hazelnut hybrid with a variety of commercial benefits.

Tom Molnar, an assistant professor of plant biology at Rutgers, said the hybrid hazelnuts could be available for commercial planting within a decade or two.

“This program could take 15 or 20 years, but I know that we will have plants that can be produced for commercial use and be grown in a variety of climates,” Molnar said. “They will also be more sustainable than soybeans.”

Molnar had been working on hazelnut hybrids on his own for about 10 years before joining forces with UNL, Oregon State and the Arbor Day Foundation.

“The first step is to find one or two good plants and see how they do in a lot of different locations, from New Jersey to Nebraska, up into Minnesota and across the Northeast.”

Only the Wilmette Valley in Oregon grows commercially viable hazelnut trees in the United States. The Oregon growers produce 99 percent of the U.S. crop but meet only 3 percent to 5 percent of the world demand.

Determining the hybrid with the highest yield per acre would be next, he said.

Research has shown that the hazelnut tree can provide food for humans as well as livestock, that it has potential as a bio-fuel and is an easily sustainable crop that doesn’t require large amounts of energy to grow.

Doug Farrar, vice president of the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, stood on a wind-swept hill recently outside Plattsmouth as second generation hazelnut hybrids were planted on Horning State Farm, which is managed by the Nebraska Forest Service.

Farrar said hazelnuts produce twice as much oil as soybeans and have many cooking uses.

They produce a cooking oil, he said, that has a similar composition to extra virgin olive oil but without the fatty acids.

The hazelnut also has the potential to help solve energy problems because it has a dense shell that makes excellent fuel and, when burned, creates hydrogen that could be used for fuel cells in electric cars.

Not having to plant the crop every year is another factor in the hazelnut’s favor.

A producer doesn’t have to use the energy to till the soil, Farrar said.

“We have put a lot of time — over 10 years — into this project,” Farrar said. “We would not have put all this energy into the project if we did not believe it had great benefits for agriculture and the environment.”

The hope is that this and subsequent generations of hybrids will be hearty enough to withstand native diseases and Nebraska’s climate while producing hazelnuts in quantities suitable for commercial sale.

The challenge is to crossbreed those native hazelnut trees grown in Oregon with hardier eastern European varieties.

Scott Josiah, director of the Nebraska Forest Service, is in charge of about two acres of hazelnut hybrids at the Horning farm near Plattsmouth. Another 9 1/2 acres of hazelnuts are being grown at Arbor Farm and two more acres at UNL’s East Campus.

Josiah carefully monitors the various hybrids to determine which version can produce the biggest, best and most abundant nuts.

“Our first-generation hybrids are already doing very well in terms of survival,” Josiah said. “The thinking is that if they can survive in Nebraska, they can survive anywhere.”

Farrar said the Arbor Day Foundation is already receiving inquiries from farmers eager to plant hazelnut trees. More than 90,000 trees have been distributed to Arbor Day Foundation members to grow and observe.

“We don’t want to make any promises before we can deliver,” Farrar said, “but we feel strongly that it’s only a matter of time and we will have a new crop that can be grown even on less than the best soil and produce a wonderful product.”

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May 26, 2009 - 4:04 PM No Comments

Brookhaven wins clean energy research grants

Brookhaven National Laboratory will be the site of a clean energy research project that scientists believe will help lower the cost of fuel cells, federal officials have announced.

The program, which will cost about $3.8 million in federal funds, is also expected to speed up the introduction of fuel cells into the marketplace, lab and federal Department of Energy officials said.

Fuel cells are devices that produce electricity by combining an oxidant and a fuel, such as oxygen and hydrogen. Some scientists view fuel cell technology as more efficient than traditional burning fuel, but fuel cells are not yet widely regarded as cost effective.

Jim Misewich, an associate lab director for basic energy sciences at Brookhaven National Lab, said the new research project “could make them much more practical because they would be cheaper.”

The lab plans to use “a range of fuels” in its research under the new program, he said.

“Today most of them are using pure hydrogen. We could develop ways to use a more wide variety of fuels,” he said.

The federal Department of Energy will phase the funding for the project over four years, beginning with about $400,000 this year, officials said.

In other funding news, Brookhaven Lab is set to receive one of five grants awarded to energy research centers around the state, including one at Stony Brook University.

The centers will receive $95.5 million over five years from the federal government, to be matched by state grants totaling $10.55 million. Stony Brook will receive $17 million from the federal government and $1.7 million from the state. Brookhaven gets $25 million from the federal government and $2.5 million from the state.

Paul DeCotis, New York’s deputy energy secretary, said the effort would create 300 to 400 jobs in the state over the five-year grant period. At Stony Brook, much of the research will focus on ongoing projects with lithium ion batteries, including their use in transportation and diagnostics, said Stony Brook professor Clare Grey.

Public officials lauded the research as a method of attracting skilled labor to Long Island.

“Brookhaven National Laboratory will continue to play a leading role in ending America’s dangerous dependence on Middle Eastern oil and creating the clean energy economy of the future,” said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district includes the Upton lab, in a statement.

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May 26, 2009 - 11:47 AM No Comments