Washington State SAF

Tree Power: Poplars to Fuel Pacific Northwest Bioenergy Industry

By Sylvia Kantor of WSU

A biofuels industry is coming to the Pacific Northwest and it’s making partners out of gridiron rivals. Rick Gustafson is certain that poplar trees will soon power cars, trucks, and even airplanes. “It’s coming and it’s going to be huge. It’s too sound a process and too important to put off,” Gustafson said at the first bioenergy plantation field day, held in August at the Pilchuck Tree Farm near Stanwood, Washington.

Gustafson, professor of Bioresource Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, directs the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels project, a $40 million, five-year, multi-institutional research project funded by the USDA to develop a sustainable biofuel system based on hybrid poplars in the Pacific Northwest. Project partners at Washington State University will make sure that extension educators in four states have the tools and information needed to support the many growers and landowners necessary for a consistent supply of trees for the industry, and to understand and help address public concerns.

Scientists will develop a conversion process that takes the sugars contained in the woody biomass beyond ethanol all the way into hydrocarbons, which can directly replace gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

Federal policy aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels is the main driving force behind the project. Within a decade, the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels project hopes to see Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and northern California producing 400 million gallons of poplar-based liquid biofuels annually, in keeping with the US Renewable Fuel Standard for the region.

Poplars lend themselves to the production of biofuel because they grow fast, have high sugar content, and leave a smaller carbon footprint than corn ethanol or fossil fuels. Plus, very little energy goes into transporting the feedstock because it is “stored on the stump” until a nearby biorefinery is ready to convert the woody biomass into fuel. Using a system of coppicing – cutting the trees at the base and allowing them to re-sprout – and a two- to three-year harvest cycle means the plantation won’t need to be replanted for up to 23 years. Harvesting machines cut and chip the trees on site, sending the chips to the refinery as needed.

As part of the study, researchers will investigate poplar genetics, production and harvesting technology, the role of microorganisms known as endophytes which can reduce fertilizer and water needs, and much more.

“If you want to be in this business, you need appropriate technology for the region and the industry,” Gustafson said. One project goal is to determine where it’s best to locate poplar farms and bio-refineries in terms of suitable land, distance between plantations and bio-refineries, and community impacts. Research also focuses on developing the best hybrid poplar varieties for different local conditions and for conversion into biofuel.

“The technology for converting poplar feedstock into biofuel has been developed, but in order for investors to feel comfortable, a commercially viable industry requires a certain economy of scale,” Gustafson said. “But it’s difficult to say now exactly what that scale will be,” he said. A best guess is a regional biorefinery producing a minimum of 80 to 100 million gallons a year. This translates roughly into 100,000 acres planted within 50 miles of a bio-refinery. Research is expected to dial in such estimates and inventory suitable land in order to help investors, growers, and policy makers make informed decisions to support the industry.

The scope of the multi-institutional project includes research, extension, and education in all four states, designed to inform the nascent industry and to help avoid costly mistakes. With sustainability in mind, the project includes a life cycle assessment to understand impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, sophisticated economic modeling and analysis, soil and water quality research, wildlife studies, and assessments of the impacts and job opportunities for local communities.

Bioenergy education programs from K-12 curriculum to graduate degrees will be designed to inform the public and train the workforce needed to support this new industry. Oregon State University recently launched a bioenergy minor as part of the project.

The Advanced Hardwood Biofuels project is a consortium of nine partner institutions including the University of Washington, Washington State University, Oregon State University, University of California at Davis, University of Idaho, Walla Walla Community College, ZeaChem, Greenwood Resources, Inc., and the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Institute. Demonstration and research farms are located in each state with a demonstration-scale bio-refinery in Boardman, Ore. Funding is provided by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Bioenergy Coordinated Agriculture Program.

For more information about the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels project check out the new website: http://hardwoodbiofuels.org.