Two $40 Million Grants Fuel Collaborative, Renewable Energy Research in Northwest

Wednesday, September 28 2011


MOSCOW, Idaho – Recent breakthroughs in biofuels technology could result in a “greener” jet stream across the Pacific Northwest.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced major grants to the University of Washington and Washington State University; the two separate five-year grants are $40 million each. The University of Idaho will partner in both grant programs, which will allow the biofuels industry to expand into the Pacific Northwest. Until now, the industry has been centered mainly in the Midwest.

"These strategic and significant awards from the USDA will help us develop the next generation of energy leaders for industry, government and the civic sector," said University of Idaho President M. Duane Nellis. "We are excited to build these important partnerships that will improve the biofuels and overall science literacy of public school teachers and our faculty who are educating our future citizens."

In making today’s announcements, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed the power of the grants not only to fuel research and discovery, but to drive economic growth.

“This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry,” Vilsack said. “Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”

The WSU-led grant involves the University of Idaho Colleges of Natural Resources and Art and Architecture, which will collaborate with the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) to address the United States’ most significant energy independence and security challenges. NARA includes researchers from diverse areas, including universities, government laboratories and private industry.

The WSU-led grant seeks to address the urgent national need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a new, viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest, where forests cover almost half of the region. The project also will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics. More information about NARA, its work and its partners is available at www.nararenewables.org.

“Moving to the use of biofuels has many implications and involves new ways of thinking about energy and products in general,’’ said Steven Hollenhorst, associate dean and professor of conservation social sciences at the University of Idaho.

Four different teams will conduct research on feedstocks, conversion, systems metrics and education and outreach. U-Idaho will focus on educating and training the future bioenergy workforce by targeting education in K-12, undergraduate and graduate programs. The College of Natural Resources’ McCall Outdoor Science School will collaborate with networks of K-12 schools, Pacific Northwest communities and non-profit organizations to provide teacher workshops, develop bioenergy and biofuel curricula and facilitate interaction of science professionals and researchers with K-12 students and teachers.

The bio-energy curricula and teacher training programs will be distributed online through a partner organization, Facing the Future, which is a non-profit organization that provides curricular materials in sustainability to hundreds of thousands of K-12 students and teachers annually.

WSU and U-Idaho also will jointly develop a new graduate program that combines bioregional planning and land use policy with integrated design to provide students with studio experiences and working in a community context to engage in the new economy. Students in the master’s program in bioregional planning and community design will coordinate through the U-Idaho College of Art and Architecture to work with community clients to come up with sustainable solutions in the areas of biofuels and bioenergy.

Collaborations between Idaho and WSU will include a new Research Experience for Undergraduates summer program at WSU, which will allow 150 undergraduates to work with faculty and graduate students on research projects related to bioengergy and biofuels.

“These programs essentially give us a presence in educational programs across the Pacific Northwest, at all levels from elementary school through graduate programs,’’ said Hollenhorst.

The UW-led project will focus on the commercial production of bio-based aviation, diesel and gasoline using plantation-grown poplars as feedstock for the next generation of biofuels.

“Currently, biofuels are made from grain and considered to compete with food crops,” said Mark Coleman, a University of Idaho associate professor of forest resources involved in the UW project. “These next-generation, or cellulosic biofuels, are using wood and crop residues to produce liquid fuels, so there is less competition with food commodities.”

University of Idaho partners will evaluate the environmental impact of poplar plantations, which are arranged in closely spaced rows designed for harvesting equipment that cuts and chips the pole-sized stems every few years. Resprouting from the cut stem extends the frequency of replanting and tilling to approximately every 25 years. U-Idaho will determine the ability of these plantations to improve soil quality and retain nutrients and sediments. U-Idaho also will measure the amount of atmospheric carbon trapped in the soils by the growth and recycling of poplar leaves and roots. This information is needed to assess the effects of the production system on the carbon cycle.

"Disease problems will become more severe in bioenergy plantations because the trees are closer together," said George Newcombe, professor of forest pathology. "Diseases can cause total plantation failures. Our team will attempt to use beneficial microbes to prevent this scenario."

Additionally, graduate education will occur through the UW’s National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which is focused on bioresource-based energy. During the five year project, the group aims to train 50 graduate students. The program also has a strong collaboration with Columbia River Basin tribes.

The WSU-led grant includes Gevo, Greenwood Resources, Catchlight Energy (a joint venture of Chevron and Weyerhaeuser) and Weyerhaeuser from private industry, along with Montana State University, National Center for Genome Resources, Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, Salish-Kootenai College, University of Minnesota, University of Montana and UW, the U.S. Forest Service, including the Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which is jointly operated by WSU and UW.

University of Idaho collaborators include Hollenhorst; Randall Brooks, extension forestry specialist; Stephen Drown, professor and department chair of landscape architecture; Karla Bradley-Eitel, MOSS education director; Greg Fizzell, MOSS program director; Justin Hougham, post-doctoral fellow; Tamera Laninga, assistant professor of conservation social sciences; Jenny Shon, MOSS program coordinator; and Michele Vachon, sustainable communities program manager.

The grant work will bring together U-Idaho researchers across disciplines, building on collaborative work valued by the institution.

“The interdisciplinary bioregional planning program works closely with the College of Art and Architecture and explores the relationship of physical planning and design to sustainable community economies based on woody biomass energy,” said Mark Hoversten, dean of the University of Idaho College of Art and Architecture. “Our work fosters strong community partnerships that explore ways to improve forest health and economic development in the Northwest.”

The UW leads a consortium of more than 15 universities, businesses and other organizations. The key industrial partners are GreenWood Resources, Portland, the largest grower of poplar trees in North America, and ZeaChem, Lakewood, Colo., the developer of a cellulosic biorefinery system that produces advanced fuels and chemicals. ZeaChem is nearing completion of a 250,000 gallon-a-year refinery in Oregon. University of Idaho collaborators include Mark Coleman, associate professor of forest resources; and George Newcombe, professor of forest resources.

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About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals, and competes in the Western Athletic Conference. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.