Producing biofuels as an environmentally-friendly alternative to petroleum-based fossil fuels is a puzzle that has been bedeviling researchers for years.
Now, with $80 million pouring into research at the University of Washington and Washington State University, stakeholders hope to find the key for turning biomass from wood products into fuel for cars and jets.
Controversy in the development of biofuels has centered on the use of corn and other food crops as the basis for the fuels, because it has driven up the price of corn and also contributed to clear cutting of rain forests for palm-oil production abroad.
Today at Seatac Airport, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced grants totaling $136 million for public and private entities to find other solutions. The grants will be used to scale up production of enzymes and fuel creation that have been done on a small scale in laboratories.
Demand is already there
As he announced the grants, Vilsack said demand for biofuels is already guaranteed. Boeing and other airplane manufacturers have made it clear they want an alternative to the volatile prices of petroleum and are investing in parallel research. And the U.S. Navy has set a goal of converting 50 percent of its fuel supply to biofuel.
“And I think we’ll be able to figure out with this research the most effective and efficient way to produce these fuels in regions of the country that play to the strength of each region. Certainly, woody biomass is a strength of the Northwest.”
He says they expect that once the U.S. reaches its goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel, that will help to create nearly a million jobs with hundreds of bio-refineries located mostly in small towns.
UW and WSU win big
The awards are among the biggest the USDA has ever issued. The two largest grants are worth $40-million each and will go to research teams at the UW and WSU.
The UW will focus on turning fast-growing poplar trees into two formulations of biofuel – one for cars and one for aviation. The university is also looking at where new plantations of poplar trees could be located so that they would be environmentally sustainable and also create new jobs without displacing existing ones.
WSU will look at using forest waste known as slash – the bark and branches leftover from lumber production – as well as scrap wood from construction as a source of aviation biofuel. Researchers there also want to increase profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value co-products, such as plastics or carbon black from lignin, a glue-like substance that comprises as much as 30 percent of some woods. And WSU’s plans include looking at the social implications of biofuel production from wood waste – such as its impact on rural communities where refineries might be located.
Private support, public effort
U.S. Representative Jay Inslee was also on hand for the announcement. He says the fact that Boeing has already flown a 747 using a camelina-based biofuel shows just how ready the world is for these new products.
“But now we need to develop a supply chain, a way to transport the fuel, harvest it, get it to the refinery. And that’s what these grants will really help businesses from Gray’s harbor to Clallum County, Yakima county to develop and that’s why we’re very excited about it.”
Forest products company Weyerhaeuser is one of the private partners in the WSU grant. Several other companies are involved, as well as researchers at other schools such as UC Davis and the University of Minnesota, where significant advances have already been made in producing biofuels from wood products and trees.
The grants have already been appropriated by Congress and are not in danger of being cut, according to a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture. They are part of President Obama’s American Jobs Act.