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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Research aids fuel’s advance

Farms aren’t the only place where fuel can be grown.

Inland Northwest forests could play a huge role in supplying biodiesel, according to research under way at the University of Washington.

Brush, branches and spindly trees from thinning projects to reduce wildfire risk would make ideal sources of methanol, said Kristiina Vogt, a coordinator of the university’s Forest Systems and Bioenergy program.

Each gallon of vegetable oil-based biodiesel must contain about 10 percent ethanol or methanol to help keep the fuel flowing freely. Currently, methanol is created from natural gas. Technology being developed at the University of Washington would allow portable machinery to transform the woody materials into methanol.

One ton of dry biomass will create about 157 gallons of methanol, Vogt said. Collecting 10 tons of biomass per acre “is not unrealistic,” she added.

Most of the technology to convert the trees to methanol is already commercially available, but Vogt said perfecting the process would require about $2 million in additional research and development. Currently, however, federal research dollars are being directed to ethanol processes. Ethanol is created from corn and soybeans as well as crop waste.

“If you don’t do ethanol, they’re not interested in interacting with you,” Vogt said.

Namibia and India have already expressed interest in the technology, but Vogt said she would like to see it developed here, where it has the potential to create a new use for a resource that’s being burned or left in the forest to decompose.

Mustard seed market

Mustard seeds, a rich source of oil used in biodiesel, also hold potential for Northwest growers. But there’s been little use for the leftover crushed seeds. This is a main reason why the plant, which has a proven track record of thriving in the Inland Northwest, has not yet been embraced by prospective oil seed growers in the region, said Matt Morra, a University of Idaho soil biochemist.

Finding a market for the leftover seed meal is critical, and Morra thinks he might have an answer. After years of research, Morra has found crushed mustard seed to be an effective natural pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer.

“You’ve got to be creative in what you’re going to do with it,” Morra said. “What do they do with the meal now? Not much. The weak link is being able to market that meal.”

The Chinese have long known about the benefits of including mustard in crop rotations. Inland Northwest potato and wheat farmers are now catching on to the practice.

Morra actually mixes the mustard seed meal with the soil. It likely would be used only on high-value crops like carrots or strawberries, but Morra thinks demand could be high for this natural substance.

Different varieties of mustard have different effects on soils. Meal from Pacific Gold, a hot, oriental mustard developed at the University of Idaho, can be used to suppress insects. Another variety reduces weeds and fungi. The effect comes from glucosinolates in mustard meal – the same substance that gives mustard its bite.

Morra and a team of University of Idaho scientists were recently awarded a $613,000 federal grant for their mustard meal project, but “several hundred thousand” additional dollars are needed to conduct the tests required before the product can be sold commercially, said Morra, who is now searching for private investors.

“It’ll work; the chemistry’s there,” Morra said.