The twin $40 million grants awarded to Washington State University and the University of Washington for biofuels research position the consortiums they lead to take the United States another step, perhaps multiple steps, away from its dependency on oil and natural gas for energy. The grants also confirm the leadership in the field not just from the Washington universities, but from private-sector participants like Weyerhaeuser Co.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture looked at more than 60 proposals for the $136 million in biofuels grant money. The WSU and UW applications placed among the top three.
Now the real work begins for WSU-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, which will focus on developing fuels from forest and wood waste. And while the researchers look for solutions to the technical and financial challenges, their efforts will be scrutinized by skeptics turned off by the ethanol boondoggle in the Midwest and the Northwest’s own poorly conceived and executed attempts at building a viable biodiesel industry.
Many a federal and state dollar has been plowed into the ground, never to be seen again.
To avoid a repeat, the NARA research will include an assessment of net energy gain from biofuels when all the inputs from forest to production are calculated. Support for ethanol production has wavered not just because of questions regarding billions in subsidies and the diversion of food stocks, but also whether producing the fuel yields more energy than it took to produce.
Norman Lewis, director of the WSU Institute for Biological Chemistry, helped organize the NARA consortium. He’s seen the waste and says he will not be risking his own scientific reputation, that of the many other experts involved, or the grant money, on leaps of faith. If, at the end of five years, NARA has not overcome all the obstacles, at least researchers will be that much closer to overcoming the scientific problems.
NARA itself will not start from scratch. Lewis notes the WSU application was accepted because the consortium was able to cherry-pick the top scientists in forest biofuels, from Pennsylvania to Minnesota to Pullman, Moscow and Missoula.
Among the challenges: finding uses for the lignin that constitutes about 30 percent of tree fiber; how to collect disbursed wood residue economically; how to exploit the Northwest’s refineries, pulp mills and other infrastructure; and determining what size plant can make fuel at prices competitive with petroleum-based products.
One problem NARA will not have: customers. A study completed earlier this year by Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest said the region’s commercial airports and military bases would be a ready market not far from likely production plants. The U.S. Department of Defense, Boeing Co. and Alaska Airlines avidly support a viable biofuels industry.
If the WSU and/or the UW efforts succeed, jobs will be preserved or created from forest to factory. For WSU, whose scientists have been so instrumental in developing more productive plant varieties, this could be the start of a second Green Revolution.