FPL Research Supports USDA’s $80 Million Biofuels Investment

By Rebecca Wallace, Public Affairs Specialist

Washington State University and University of Washington have each been awarded a five-year, $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. As a partner in the Washington State University (WSU)-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) will receive $1.1 million to pretreat woody biomass for conversion to aviation fuel.

“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.”

NARA includes a broad consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories and private industry. The WSU-led grant aims 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.  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.

FPL research engineer JunYong Zhu will demonstrate his patent-pending technique, SPORL (Sulfite Pretreatment to Overcome Recalcitrance of Lignocellulose) in the NARA program. Zhu has successfully used SPORL on lodgepole pine woody biomass (juvenile wood with a high lignin content), but his contribution to NARA will be using SPORL on biomass of another softwood, Douglas-fir, grown by Weyerhaeuser.

SPORL was developed on the basis of sulfite pulping technology, which has been carried out at a large commercial scale for decades. By making use of existing equipment, processes, and knowledge of the pulp and paper industry, SPORL presents fewer technical barriers to building new plants or to retrofitting existing pulp mills to production of biofuels.  The process also reduces energy requirements and will address feedstock variability of bark, needles, and branches. This pretreatment process is an integral part of converting woody biomass to aviation fuel. The pretreated materials will be sent to Weyerhaeuser and Gevo for conversion to renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels, respectively.

Wood as a Green Building Material: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack urges US builders to prioritize wood in green buildings

Findings in a recent Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) study suggest that wood should factor as a primary building material in green building. The report, Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction (pdf), reviews the scientific literature and determines that using wood in building products yields fewer greenhouse gases than using other common materials.

“This study confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits, provides incentives for private landowners to maintain forest land, and provides a critical source of jobs in rural America.”

The report suggests that greater use of life cycle analysis in building codes and standards would improve the scientific underpinning of such codes and standards. Advancement in life cycle analysis procedures and the development of new technologies for improved wood utilization are needed to further advance wood as a green construction material. Forest products’ sustainability can be verified through credible third-party rating systems such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Forest Stewardship Council or American Tree Farm System.

The use of forest products in the United States currently supports more than one million direct jobs, particularly in rural areas, and contributes more than $100 billion to the country’s gross domestic product.

“In the Rockies alone, we have hundreds of thousands of dead trees killed by bark beetles that could find their way into the building supply chain for all types of buildings,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Taking a harder look at wood as a green building source could reduce the damages posed by future fires, maintain overall forest health and provide much-needed jobs in local communities.”

The report identifies several areas where peer-reviewed science can contribute to sustainable green building design and decisions, including:

  • Updating and revising information on environmental impacts across the lifecycle of wood and alternative construction materials;
  • Ensuring that green building codes and standards adequately recognize the benefit of a lifecycle environmental analysis to guide selection of building materials; and
  • Developing educational, technology transfer, and demonstration projects to promote the acceptance of wood as a green building material.

Research recently initiated by the wood products industry in partnership with the FPL will enable greater use and valuation of smaller diameter trees and insect- and disease-killed trees. Research on new products and technologies has also been initiated including improved cross-lamination techniques and the increased use of nanotechnology.

These developments are especially important amidst a changing climate because forest managers will need to increasingly thin densely forested areas in the coming years to reduce the impacts from longer and more severe wildfire seasons. Continued research of wood-based products and technologies will contribute to more environmentally responsible building materials and increased energy efficiency.