Biofuel Goes Back to the Future

“The fuel of the future is going to come from apples, weeds, sawdust—almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented,” Henry Ford reportedly told a New York Times reporter in 1925.

The future is here at the College of Forestry. In the fall of 2011, two five-year projects to create new aviation fuels and high-value chemicals out of tree plantations and forest residues in the Pacific Northwest were announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These projects provide $9.8 million in grants to researchers at Oregon State University, primarily at the College of Forestry, as part of a diverse, $80 million program of research, education, and industrial collaboration involving OSU, the University of Washington, Washington State University, other agencies, and private industry.

The ambitious agenda includes developing new ways to produce biofuels and other chemicals, while protecting forests and the wildland-urban interface, growing new biomass in fast-growing hardwood plantations of poplars and alders, and putting to use forest harvest residues.

The primary goal of the first project, called the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), is to “find ways to produce aviation fuel and high-value chemicals using a sustainable supply of biomass,” says John Sessions, University Distinguished Professor of Forestry in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management (FERM) and holder of the Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management. “The project goal is to create a fuel that’s an exact substitute for existing aviation fuel,” he says. “This is a large research initiative and an enormous logistical challenge that will require the work of many scientists at OSU and our partner institutions, and ultimately help provide millions of gallons of fuel a year.”

Much of the OSU work under NARA will focus on the production and logistics of getting woody biomass or “feedstock” out of Pacific Northwest forests at an affordable cost. Sessions is leading efforts on feedstock logistics. “Calculations indicate that the cost of delivered forest wood residue is about half of the production cost of the final products,” Sessions notes. “We need to find the best ways to bring residues resulting from harvests and forest health/fuels treatments out of the forests and get them to the processing plants.”

The OSU team includes forestry scientists and engineers who will be involved in many facets of the project, including studies of forest health and hazard reduction; modeling of the biomass supply; protection of long-term site productivity; impacts on wildlife habitat; genetic improvement of conifers; worker health and safety; public education and outreach; and other topics.

Emeritus Professor Darius Adams (FERM) will direct modeling of the biomass supply. Glen Murphy (Stewart Professor in Forest Engineering, FERM), Loren Kellogg (Lematta Professor of Forest Engineering, FERM), and Kevin Boston (Associate Professor, FERM) will contribute their expertise in forest harvesting systems, forest supply chain planning, and operations management.

Assessing the sustainability of feedstock production from a silvicultural perspective are Douglas Maguire (Giustina Professor of Forest Management, FERM), Director of the OSU Center for Intensive Planted-forest Silviculture (CIPS), and John D. Bailey (Associate Professor, FERM), who directs the wildland fire management program in the College. Bailey notes that “much of the forest is going to burn anyway, some of it might as well be in a jet engine while we do landscape-scale forest restoration.”

Keith J.S. Jayawickrama (FES), Director of the OSU Northwest Tree Improvement Cooperative will work on sustainable feedstock production. A subset of Douglas-fir and western hemlock families in the cooperative tree improvement programs, combining fast growth and good form, will be evaluated for suitability for processing to aviation fuel, and detailed studies will be conducted on the genetic makeup of promising families.

Scott Leavengood (Associate Professor, WSE), Director of the Oregon Wood Innovation Center (OWIC), will serve as the Extension & Outreach representative for Oregon. His role will be to help identify Oregon communities with good potential as locations for a new biofuel processing facility and then will coordinate dialogue between the research team and those communities. He will also disseminate information about the project as it progresses.

In the second project, called System for Advanced Biofuels Production from Woody Biomass in the Pacific Northwest, $4.4 million will establish a new bioenergy education program at OSU. This project is part of a $40 million grant managed by the University of Washington involving bioenergy industries, regional universities and Extension services. University Distinguished Professor Steve Strauss (FES), forest biotechnology expert and an international leader in the genetics of trees, will receive $577,000 to study ways to avoid gene movement from genetically engineered poplar trees to wild forests. While not in use today, such trees are expected to help increase economic efficiency and reduce environmental impacts from dedicated energy plantations.