Wood-based biofuels get boost by USDA

The U.S. biofuels industry has mostly been centered in Midwestern agricultural states. 

Ultimately, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hopes different regions of the nation will produce fuels that are interchangeable in today’s engines, and compatible with various fuels already in use.

To that end, the USDA has awarded $40 million grants to both the University of Washington (UW) and Washington State University (WSU) to research the potential of regional “cellulosic” biomass that comes from the stems and stalks of trees in the Pacific Northwest.

The UW-led project will focus on producing bio-based aviation, diesel and gasoline fuels using plantation-grown poplars as feedstock.

The WSU-led project will focus on producing aviation fuel from residue wood, including wood that is typically burned in forests after harvests, removed during thinning to improve forest health or ends up at landfills from such things as building demolitions.

One aspect of the project will leverage technology developed by ZeaChem, a biorefinery company whose 250,000-gallon-a-year demonstration biorefinery in Boardman, Ore. will begin producing cellulosic ethanol for fuel blending later this year. (Among ZeaChem’s suppliers is GreenWood Resources). 

The USDA grant will fund the addition of process units to produce bio-based aviation, diesel and gasoline fuel.

If successful, the team hopes to one day have five or more biorefineries based on ZeaChem technologies in the region, requiring an estimated 400,000 acres of woody biomass.

The proposal includes an initiative to help small- to medium-sized landowners understand if, and how, they should grow woody biomass for this new industry. 

Efforts of the forest stewardship program of the Washington State University Extension office will ensure that farmers can grow trees within a reasonable distance of the refineries, and have access to the most suitable tree varieties.

Partners include 16 universities, businesses and organizations. A complete list of project partners can be found here.

Lauren Craig, EarthTechling