Posted: Sep 14, 2012 4:46 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News
Updated: Sep 14, 2012 7:49 PM
MISSOULA- Researchers working to see if Northwest wood scrap can be turned into jet fuel say they've made good progress in the first year of their $40 million project, but they haven't figured out how the project would make money.
Dozens of researchers from all over the Northwest gathered in Missoula the past two days for the first conference of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a group formed last year to explore the idea of converting the region's massive reserves of wood into jet fuel.
It might seem far-fetched, but it's based on the simple science of turning the energy in the wood into chemical compounds that can be used in fuel.
Scientists hope to create long-term, sustainable industry, especially with the demand for airplane fuel expected to grow by a billion gallons in the Northwest alone over the next 20 years.
The research groups, funded through a USDA grant, are asking how much wood supply is available and how expensive recovering it would be.
Researchers are trying to analyze the quality, and quantity, of timber residue available. In other words, not the worthless scrap referred to as "hog fuel," nor marketable trees used for lumber, but the logging "slash" in between.
While Oregon and Washington have more than twice the amount of "bone dry" timber residue, researchers are analyzing timber supplies from Idaho and Montana. Some think timber species from the Northern Rockies might have a cost advantage because smaller sizes are more easily chipped.
With thousands of acres dying from pine beetles, and the growing issue of thinning to prevent fire, the scientists say the entire region must be studied, looking where the timber industry is already established, said Gevan Marrs, a Weyerhaeuser senior scientist.
"Nature has thrown opportunities at us with insect infestations and other opportunities so, it's not always easy to figure out the best spot to locate these. And frankly if we're going to succeed we're going to multiple geographies as well."
Other speakers at the conference say the effort must also consider whether the biofuels idea allows for good management of both private and public forest lands, establishing an industry that's sustainable and yet protects healthy forests and the environment.