Biofuel research at UW and WSU to help power the economy


TAXPAYERS, investors, environmentalists and consumers have lots of reasons to cheer the federal grants to promote biofuel research at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The two institutions were among a handful of top U.S. schools selected for the public-private partnerships announced in Seattle by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Both universities have the reputations for excellence and programs in place that stood out in the competitive process. The $80 million coming into the state goes primarily to UW and WSU, but they will deploy pieces of the grant to support specific research topics at other universities.

The goal is to turn woody, biomass feedstock into fuels for cars, trucks and planes. The research will cover all the bases, from growing trees — poplars — to where best to plant and harvest them, pilot projects for fuel conversion, the details of commercial expansion, and all the environment and social implications with each step.

UW professor Richard Gustafson explains the goal is to develop and track a sustainable process that looks at all phases of operation. To help conduct those assessments, the universities looked widely for academic and commercial expertise.

Five years from now, the idea is to have tree plantations that reveal all the issues with planting and harvesting. Eventually, tree planting could reach 400,000 acres across the West, targeted for marginal land that is unsuitable for other agricultural production. What are the environmental consequences of that scale of operation? Answers are coming.

Turning the biomass — from trees, not crop residue — into fuel is the other core focus. For example, ZeaChem, of Lakewood, Colo., broke ground on pilot biofuel production in Boardman, Ore. — all with an eye toward making the fuel in commercial quantities that reach and sustain markets.

The federal government is looking for a "drop in" fuel, Gustafson said, a product that is a direct replacement for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Not an additive, but something that could be used by itself or used to extend familiar petroleum-based products. The issues get right down to the length of molecules.

This is the kind of research and development that stretches and eventually saves tax dollars, and answers questions for investors.

America's reliance on oil is reflected in everything from the price of gasoline to U.S. foreign policy. Private industry has not shown the interest or capacity to aggressively look for alternatives.

"Every step of the process of making alternative fuels can mean real economic opportunity and real jobs for Washington state," U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell said in a congratulatory letter to the two schools.

Federal tax dollars are coming to two leading universities with records for producing results.