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GreenWood Resources’ poplar varieties grow very rapidly, one reason they are considered a promising feedstock for biofuels. At a GreenWood Resources plantation in Oregon, trees on the right show the rapid growth in the first year after planting. Trees on the left are 8 years old and 10 inches in diameter. Credit: GreenWood Resources

Seattle’s biofuels industry took a big hit a few years ago when Imperium Renewables canceled its IPO, laid off staff and lost key contracts. But the biofuels industry (including Imperium) may be on the rebound.

And the industry is getting a major shot in the arm today when U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces that $80 million in federal grants will be provided to The University of Washington and Washington State University to study how poplar trees and byproducts from the timber industry can be transformed into fuel. Vilsack is in the Seattle area today to make the announcement.

WSU and the UW will split the grants, with each receiving $40 million. Institutions in Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa also will be part of the overall $136 million grant, which The Seattle Times notes is one of the largest in the USDA’s history.

In a press release, Richard Gustafson, principal investigator of the UW-led grant and a UW professor of forest resources, said that the grants will boost the biofuels industry in the region and help create jobs.

“For the UW-led grant alone, a successful demonstration project over the next five years will lay the foundation to build five commercial biorefineries and cultivate 400,000 acres of poplars, resulting in 1,500 direct jobs, mostly in rural areas,” he said.

The University of Washington-led project focuses on producing bio-based fuel using feedstock from poplar plantations, such as these being harvested in Oregon on land managed by GreenWood Resources. Photo: ZeaChem

The UW researchers plan to investigate ways to use “cellulosic biomass” from tree stalks and other plans to create fuels used in airplanes and automobiles. It is working with GreenWood Resources, a Portland company that is the largest producer of poplar trees in North America, and ZeaChem, a Lakewood, Colorado company that is building a 250,000 gallon refinery in Boardman, Oregon.

If the technologies prove successful, as many as five new refineries could be based on the ZeaChem systems. It will take 400,000 acres of woody biomass to supply the five refineries in the region.

WSU, meanwhile, will investigate ways to turn residue wood after fires into aviation fuel. Its project includes collaboration with 16 universities and businesses, including Weyerhaeuser and Gevo.

“Production of fuels and chemicals from biomass will be a huge industrial enterprise in the future,” Gustafson said. “It is essential that it be sustainable from an economic, environmental and social point of view. The research lays the foundation for building a sustainable enterprise before large scale commercialization.”

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