Washington State University is getting a $40 million research grant to produce “green” jet fuel from woody debris in Northwest forests.
The five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is aimed at creating a cost-competitive, domestically produced biofuel that the airlines would embrace.
The idea of fermenting carbohydrates found in cellulose-derived tree sugars and extracting the molecules to make jet fuel isn’t new, said Norman Lewis, director of WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry.
“Woody plant materials produce an enormous range of chemicals,” he noted. However, “scientific and technical” barriers still impede large-scale commercial production of aviation fuel from wood, Lewis said.
In addition to WSU’s grant, which focuses on fuel produced from logging debris, the University of Washington is receiving $40 million to research converting plantation-grown poplar trees into aviation, diesel and gasoline fuels.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the awards Wednesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The research grants are among the largest awarded by the agency and mark the federal government’s latest efforts to develop biofuels and regional renewable-energy markets.
Partners in the two projects include universities, research entities and corporations, such as timber giant Weyerhaeuser, from Washington and nine other states: Oregon, Colorado, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
“It’s very much a university and industry-led effort,” said WSU’s Lewis.
Researchers say wood biofuels have the potential to help the Northwest recover from the loss of natural resource jobs in recent years and utilize existing infrastructure, such as timber and pulp mills, to serve another regional powerhouse: the airline industry.
Jet fuel is the biggest single expense for airlines, accounting for about one-third of their total expenses this year. In addition, air travel is responsible for about 3 percent of greenhouse gases. Airlines have been seeking ways to control their fluctuating fuel costs and reduce their carbon footprint by turning to alternative fuel sources that can be interchanged with petroleum-based kerosene. The Pentagon has pushed forward on a research project to produce algae-based biofuel, while airlines have considered a range of options, including cooking oil and a combination of coconut oil and babassu oil, which comes from a palm tree in northern Brazil.
Last month, President Barack Obama announced a partnership to invest up to $510 million over three years to produce advanced aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation.
WSU’s Lewis said the goal would be to produce carbon-neutral jet fuel from woody debris. But calculating the fuel’s carbon footprint is part of the research work.
Cutting the cost of aviation biofuel will be one of the researchers’ biggest challenges. Though the cost of conventional jet fuel continues to rise, Lewis said aviation biofuel is still more expensive for airlines.
One of the cost hurdles has been addressing lignin, a glue-like material that comprises up to 30 percent of some woods. Researchers will work to expand their knowledge of how lignin can be used. Their work will also focus on developing high-value byproducts from converting wood to jet fuel, whose sale could help subsidize the cost of biofuel.
The WSU project will evaluate biofuels from planting through growing, harvest and conversion to ensure an environmentally sustainable and economically viable industry.
“We are looking at all the bottlenecks that have prevented these things from being readily converted before,” Lewis said. “We think there is potential to replace some of the natural resource jobs lost in the region in recent years.”
Researchers said they also will focus on ensuring that any new technologies developed in the projects translate to viable industries, something other biofuels efforts have garnered criticism for by failing to accomplish. That means helping landowners understand whether they would benefit by growing wood products for the new industry; training workers; and educating schoolchildren, college students and communities about the biofuels industry, particularly those likely to be affected by or to benefit from its development.
Production of fuels and chemicals from biomass will be a huge industrial enterprise in the future, said Richard Gustafson, a University of Washington professor of forest resources and a lead on the UW project.
“It is essential that it be sustainable from an economic, environmental and social point of view,” he said. “The research lays the foundation for building a sustainable enterprise before large-scale commercialization.”
Overall, the five-year program announced by the Agriculture Department Wednesday includes more than $136 million in research and development grants to public- and private-sector partners in 22 states. In addition to Washington, university partners from Louisiana, Tennessee and Iowa will lead projects to focus in part on developing aviation biofuels from tall grasses, crop residues and forest resources.
The Associated Press and staff writer Becky Kramer contributed to this report.