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USDA makes $40 million award to ASPB member to develop biofuels from sustainable lumber stocks

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made two $40 million consortia grants to Washington State institutions to use sustainable woody biomass in the Pacific Northwest to produce biofuels for aviation and other petrochemical uses. One award, led by American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) member Norman Lewis and Michael Wolcott of Washington State University, will support the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA). NARA is a collaborative effort among university, government, and industry scientists to seek to produce domestic aviation fuel using wood that is either developed for this purpose, typically burned in forests after harvest, removed during thinning to improve forest health, or ends up in landfills as waste from building demolitions and other sources.

At a press event announcing the grants at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said "I'd bet my life" on the growth of a tree-based biofuels industry. "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," he said. "Publicprivate 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."

One aspect of the award in support of NARA that has particular relevance to plant biology is the alliance's intention to utilize the most recent technologies and scientific approaches to help overcome long-standing issues in using woody biomass for biofuels production. NARA's approach, in part, will use the most advanced genomic technologies, as well as phenomics, to identify the most promising sources of biofuels from tree lines that are currently available (e.g., Douglas fir, western hemlock, poplar, and red alder). The five-year award has four main deliverable components: feedstock development, sustainable feedstock production, logistics, and conversion and refining to reach these goals.

In addition, a significant effort will be made to learn how to break down lignin more effectively. As one of the major components of wood, lignin acts as glue that holds together the components of plant cell walls and provides wood with its strength. However, lignin is difficult to break down and reduces the bioavailability of other cell wall components, resulting in a technical barrier to the use of woody materials in biofuel production.

"We believe we can begin to resolve the issues that have prevented wood-based biofuels and other petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable with some new strategies and the diversity of skills represented on the NARA team," said Lewis. "If we are successful, the potential to begin to replace the natural resources jobs lost in the region over the past several years is very high."

A second $40 million grant will go to the University of Washington to focus on utilizing poplar trees as a source material for sustainable biofuel production, since the trees are fast growing and can be harvested within a few years.

Lewis is Regents Professor and director of Washington State University's Institute of Biological Chemistry and a member of Scotland's National Academy of Science and Letters. He currently serves on ASPB's Public Affairs Committee and formerly was a monitoring editor for Plant Physiology.


Contact: Adam Fagen
American Society of Plant Biologists

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