Washington's two major public universities have been awarded $80 million in federal grants to kick-start a biofuels industry in the Northwest, with hopes of turning trees into fuel for jet engines and cars alike.

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Washington’s two major public universities have been awarded $80 million in federal grants to kick-start a biofuels industry in the Northwest, with hopes of turning trees into fuel for jet engines and cars alike.

Underscoring the size and importance of the grant, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was to make the announcement Wednesday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The total grant is $136 million and one of the largest the USDA has ever made.

The University of Washington and Washington State University will each administer $40 million and play leading roles in the work aimed at creating a Northwest biofuels industry. The remaining money is going to schools in Louisiana, Tennessee and Iowa.

Researchers have long dreamed of turning woody scraps, or cellulosic biomass, into fuel, but the promise has often seemed to be at odds with reality. In a phone interview Tuesday, Vilsack said he was confident that at the end of the five-year grant, a new industry would be churning out fuel from trees. “I’d bet my life on it,” he said.

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What has changed? “I think we’re that far advanced,” Vilsack said. “I think the question now is, what is the most efficient and effective way to do it, and how do we use what nature gives us?”

The UW grant will be used to investigate turning wood into two formulations of a new fuel: one that would fuel jet engines, and another that could replace gasoline and run in any car, said Richard Gustafson, a professor of chemical engineering in the UW’s School of Forest Resources.

The UW will focus on fast-growing poplar trees, a species that can be harvested in as little as a few years from planting. Gustafson said the grant could eventually lead to the construction of new commercial biorefineries and the cultivation of 400,000 acres of poplars, which would create more than a thousand new jobs in the Northwest.

WSU’s part of the grant will focus on making aviation jet fuel from slash — the unusable branches and bark left after lumber is harvested — said WSU professors Norman Lewis and Michael Wolcott, co-directors of the WSU project. The process also could use scrap wood destined for construction landfills.

Vilsack drew a distinction between this grant and the federal loan guarantees that went to California solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which recently filed for bankruptcy. Vilsack said that unlike the Solyndra loan guarantees, this grant is for research and is part of a collaborative effort between universities and industry.

The money has already been appropriated by Congress and is not in danger of being cut, he said.

One of the big roadblocks to producing biofuels is figuring out which crop, or raw material, can be turned into fuel without upending some other part of the economy or causing environmental problems. For example, making ethanol out of corn — which seemed like a good idea at the time, Gustafson said — has contributed to high food prices, hunger and political instability elsewhere in the world.

If researchers can develop biofuels from crops that are not part of the food system — especially if the crops can be grown on lands not now used for agriculture — the industry could sidestep those problems. Still, environmentalists have been wary that biofuels from trees, switch grass or waste products will have unseen repercussions for water use and soil fertility.

The Seattle environmental group Climate Solutions supports the grants and says they move things in the right direction. “We’re convinced this is a critical area where we need safe, reliable alternatives to petroleum,” said Ross Macfarlane, a senior adviser for business partnerships.

Gustafson said figuring out the repercussions of using wood for fuel is part of what the grant will do. “We’ll have this built out ahead of time, so before this becomes big and commercial we’ll know where the impacts will be and they’ll be addressed,” he said.

The grants will be used to “scale up” laboratory discoveries, finding the least expensive way to produce fuel at an industrial level. “I think we’re reaching a tipping point where we’re going to see an acceleration of these biorefineries, and an acceleration in technologies,” Vilsack said.

Researchers will also be trying to find commercial uses for lignin, a gluelike material that makes up as much as 30 percent of some woods. Developing a product that can be made from lignin has been one of the challenges of making wood biofuels profitable and attractive to investors.

Both grants have a number of public and private partners. For example, $9.3 million of the UW grant will go to ZeaChem, a Colorado company that is developing a way to turn ethanol into a fuel that flows and burns just like either gasoline or jet fuel, Gustafson said. ZeaChem is constructing a 250,000 gallon-per-year demonstration-scale biorefinery in Boardman, Ore.

About $4 million of the WSU grant will go to Weyerhaeuser, and $5 million to Gevo, a Colorado company that has found a way to produce a fuel called butanol from wood. And both Washington schools will be working with other university partners, including Oregon State University, University of Idaho, University of California at Davis and the University of Minnesota.

The UW will take the lead on work that will seek to understand the environmental impacts of establishing plantations of poplar trees around the Pacific Northwest, and where those plantations should be located. “It’s really important for us to do this in a sustainable fashion — to grow these trees with the least amount of environmental impact,” Gustafson said.

WSU will also investigate some of the social implications — trying to determine, for example, whether rural communities are going to welcome commercial biorefineries in their neighborhoods, Wolcott said.

Gustafson acknowledged that converting trees into a transportation fuel isn’t yet cost-effective. “Oil’s still kind of cheap,” he said. “If oil stays above $80 a barrel, it (fuel from trees) starts to look pretty good, and if oil goes up to $120 or so, these things start to look really good.”

The Obama administration wants to “build out a biofuel industry that is located in all parts of the country,” Vilsack said. He said work is going on in Iowa to turn corn cobs and corn husks into fuel, and a biorefinery is under construction in Florida to create fuel out of municipal and citrus waste.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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