WSU to lead Pacific Northwest aviation biofuel project

By Anna Austin
A regional renewable jet fuel collaboration has been formed to assess four Pacific Northwest states-Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana-to determine biomass feedstock growth, harvest, refining and transport options in relation to sustainable aviation fuel production.

Washington State University will lead the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest project. Other partners include Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Port of Seattle, Port of Portland and Spokane International Airport. Research will include an analysis of biofuel feedstocks native to the Pacific Northwest, including algae, oilseeds such as camelina and woody biomass. The project will identify potential pathways and actions to make aviation biofuel commercially available to airlines servicing the Pacific Northwest.

WSU, under the leadership of Vice President John Gardner, has been working with Boeing, the U.S. Air Force, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Targeted Growth, Weyerhauser, Tesoro and others on an aviation biofuels effort for a couple of years, according to WSU Agricultural Research Center Director Ralph Cavalieri. "The first part of the project was to engage in the discussions among the partners so that a demand for the biofuel would be created," he said.

Scientists at the college have been working on biomass-to-aviation fuel projects for some time, according to Cavalieri. "Of course, the major research effort we are undertaking is the development of the cropping system to produce the oilseed crops that will go to the crusher and ultimately be processed into standard jet fuel," he explained. "The constraint that the aviation industry and the Air Force placed on the project is to produce the oil from nonfood crops."

Oilseeds that are candidates for the project are camelina and rapeseed. "We have had a major effort underway for a number of years, funded by (the state of) Washington, to examine biomass crops for biofuels," Cavalieri said. "The overarching biomass for biofuels project is led by professor Bill Pan, and it involves switchgrass and other fast-growing perennial grasses, various oilseeds, etc."

A portion of that project, led by Cook Endowed Chair in Cropping Systems and Professor Scott Hulbert, involves camelina. Hulbert is the principal investigator for WSU's application for funds to USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative in an upcoming round of grant competition for creation of a regional biomass for biofuels research center. "In that proposal, we are partnering with Oregon State University, Montana State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Washington, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and others," Cavalieri said. "The goal is to advance the knowledge of how to produce oilseed crops in an economically and environmentally sustainable way in the Pacific Northwest with the goal of providing the necessary nonfood vegetable oil to meet the aviation industry's needs in the region."

Another WSU project is led by Regents Professor Norman Lewis, who has expertise in the basic plant science of woody plants, particularly poplar trees. "His research adjusts the biochemistry of the trees to make them more suitable for use in making bioproducts," Cavalieri said. "Dr. Lewis is leading an effort to secure USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds for a multi-institutional group to advance the production of aviation fuel from lignocellulosic biomass."

Under the general topic of plant improvement, WSU has several faculty members who are modifying plants to alter the chemical makeup of the oils they express, to examine the genetics of plants for production of biomass and improve their ability to be produced with minimal or no additional inputs.

Assistant Professor Manuel Garcia Perez is leading a project involving the thermochemical conversion of lignocellulosic biomass through pyrolysis to bio-oil. "This, too, can be used to make aviation fuels after appropriate processing," Cavalieri said. "His efforts are in conjunction with the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory."

Professor Shulin Chen, is leading another relevant project, optimizing algae production in northern states. "Dr. Chen is running a very large research program dealing with many other aspects of biofuel and bioproducts development," Cavalieri said
In cooperation with PNNL, Professor Birgitte Ahring leads WSU's Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory. "Her primary effort is in the production of ethanol through microbiological processes with subsequent conversion to other biofuels and bioproducts," Cavalieri explained. "Finally, we have economists who are examining the economics of agricultural production of biomass and of transportation issues associated with this developing industry."

The project is being funded by participating parties, and is expected to be completed in six months.