The future of Pacific Northwest forests may lie in the stuff loggers now leave behind.
That’s the bet the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance has made in networking a roomful of professors, business leaders and government officials to turn wood waste into jet fuel. They’re working through a $40 million federal grant to envision all the mills, pipelines, refineries, outreach programs, permits and spinoffs the industry could create.
There’s just one hitch: Nobody has yet figured out how to economically make isobutanol fuel out of tree tops.
“We know that figuring out how to break cellulose down into sugars is the big gridlock,” said Montana State University extension forester Peter Kolb. “But you can’t afford not to pursue wood. Producing bioenergy from forests is the only agricultural practice in the world that also provides clean water and recreation and doesn’t compete with food production.”
Last week, about 20 NARA members and an equal number of interested stakeholders met in Missoula to hear the effort’s progress. Washington State University engineering professor Michael Wolcott acknowledged the program was a little like planning a city on Mars before anyone has a rocket to get there. But he argued there were plenty of good reasons to prepare for the rocket’s arrival.
Alternative energy ideas come in dozens of flavors. With cars, designers have promoted plug-in electric motors, hydrogen fuel cells, modified diesel fuels and mass-transit alternatives. But the aviation world is different.
“We can’t fly planes on electricity,” Wolcott said. “They’re going to be depending on liquid fuels for quite a while. Nothing else can match the energy density.”
That’s the amount of work a given technology can wring from a given amount of fuel. Nuclear power can move an aircraft carrier, but its reactors are too heavy to put in an aircraft. And so far, no one’s come up with a better plane-pusher than the internal combustion engine.
So NARA’s organizers feel safe betting that some scientist will crack the secret of turning wood into jet fuel. And when that breakthrough arrives, a lot of other things need to be in place.
“We need to understand the whole ecology of this industry,” said University of Idaho education coordinator Steve Hollenhorst. “There are decisions to be made about business locations, supply chains, how to develop the work force. We need to get people more literate about the implications.”
The concept resembles the old description of a good butcher who makes use of every part of a pig except the squeal. Kolb said traditional logging and present-day hazardous fuels reduction both produce huge amounts of now-valueless branches, needles, bark and skinny trees that can’t pay their way out of the woods. A biofuel industry would turn that material into a valuable resource supporting forest conservation as well as community jobs, he said.
Scientists already know ways to turn wood into jet fuel. The current methods can’t compete with conventional petroleum-based fuels. But anyone shopping for a plane ticket knows how much the airline industry gets whipsawed by the volatile nature of fuel prices. Adding a new supply source of jet fuel, even if it only met a fraction of the demand, would stabilize those price swings, according to Paul Smith, a NARA member from Pennsylvania State University.
“Just that stability is worth a premium,” Smith said. And both the private aviation industry and the U.S. military have committed to biofuel blends as a way to control their fuel costs.
The industry would need infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist. It takes people and equipment to haul the slash out of the woods and prepare it for fermentation that would turn the wood fibers to sugars and then alcohols. Fuel refineries would need capacity to process the wood fuels into forms that don’t corrode pipelines or engine parts, the way ethanol from corn now does. Those plants and processes might differ greatly between the wet Douglas fir forests of western Washington and Oregon and the dry pine forests of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Kolb added that a host of environmental concerns needed attention, too. While harvesting slash could reduce the amount of waste burning in the forest, collection could affect water quality, wildlife habitat and forest health. The still-unclear effects of climate change and beetle-kill must be considered.
“This doesn’t mean vacuuming up all the woody debris in the forest,” Kolb said. “But in Montana, we’re looking at piles of thinning debris we’re spending $2,000 to $3,000 an acre to clean up. In this dry climate, they will persist for 50 years, unless they burn, in which case they burn so hot we get soil sterilization issues. This is a gold pile nobody’s using.”
NARA formed two years before winning its U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. It now wants to have its roadmap for industrial development ready for review by September. Then it will spend the next four or five years researching the ways that roadmap can become reality.
“I don’t want to see another study sitting on a shelf that I can’t use,” warned Tracy McIntire, the current president of the Montana Cooperative Development Center. “Who’s going to find the business models to run with this?”
“There are six companies in the hunt for this right now,” Wolcott responded. “They don’t start lawsuits over technologies that aren’t worth fighting over. We know cracking softwood is the hardest one to do. But if we’re able to crack that nut, the larger potential infrastructure is already there. That’s our big challenge.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.