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Development, Production, and Logistics

Researchers in the Northwest Advanced Renewable Alliance (NARA) are looking to develop a sustainable supply chain of wood materials to produce aviation biofuels and chemicals.

Almost half of the Pacific Northwest is covered by forests, which are currently used for a host of different products. There are many points along the supply chain where waste wood exist and can provide a significant source of potential biomass for fuels production. These steps begin with logging residues currently burned in the forest and extend to significant amounts of wood that end up in landfills as construction and demolition waste.

The researchers are taking a multi-pronged approach for the development and sustainable production of feedstocks derived from wood materials. In particular, they will be studying the use of forest residues from timber harvest and wood waste from municipal solid waste sites.

They aim to optimize the harvesting, transportation and processing systems that are already in place for woody biomass for use in biofuel/bioproduct industries. At the same time, they will be working to develop plant lines for eventual use as energy crops.

Assessing the use of forest residues and existing forest crops for sustainable biofuels production

Residues from Pacific Northwest forests are currently underutilized and could be a potential feedstock for biofuels. The researchers will look at how much residue is available and how much could be removed without affecting land productivity and wildlife.

The group aims to develop biomass supply models and silviculture regimes to provide and enhance biomass production, as well as to look at the impacts of biomass removal on land productivity and wildlife.

“We’re very confident we can grow a lot of biomass,” says Greg Johnson, director of forest research at Weyerhaeuser Company, which is coordinating sustainable production efforts. “The big challenge is finding ways to deliver biomass at competitive costs — it has to pay its way out of the woods.”

Researchers in Oregon and Washington are unique in the nation in being able to determine the distribution of vegetation in the region at a fairly high resolution through the use of the Landscape Ecology, Modeling, Mapping, and Analysis Database (LEMMA). They will expand on surveys of vegetation done in Oregon and Washington to include Idaho and Montana.

Weyerhaeuser Company also has been involved in one of the longer studies in the Pacific Northwest looking at the impact of biomass removal from forests, says Johnson. The study has been conducted for more than a decade in Washington’s Coastal Range.

As part of the NARA grant, a similar study will be established in Oregon on forest land is drier and has heavier textured soil than the Washington site.

Working with university and U.S. Forest Service collaborators, the researchers will be studying the impacts of biomass removal on future tree growth and productivity. In the Washington studies, researchers have found little change in tree growth and only a very small decrease in tree growth with biomass removal levels far in excess of that required for biofuel applications, says Johnson. “The results have been encouraging,” he said.

The researchers will also be looking at the impacts of biomass removal on nutrient and carbon cycles. Using computer modeling, they will be looking at possible effects during the next 50 years.

“It’s exciting work,” said Johnson. “We think that we’ll be able to show that there is a significant amount of fuel that can be produced from this biomass that is sustainable and renewable.”

The researchers will work toward the following outcomes:

  • Estimates on the amount of available biomass in the Pacific Northwest
  • Better understanding of the impact of harvesting wood residues on forests and soils
  • Accurate estimates of bioenergy feedstock yields that they can expect to have with a regular crop rotation
  • Better understanding of management that would be required to boost forest/energy crop productivity
  • Improved design of forest restoration on public land that could ensure productivity

Assessing Harvesting and Transportation Methods

With the aim of reducing costs, the NARA researchers will assess harvesting and transportation methods required to make the use of wood materials in the production of aviation biofuels and chemicals economically viable.

Collection and transportation costs of forest materials are a major obstacle to having a commercially viable bioenergy industry.

Biomass residues are the lowest value products in the forest, says John Sessions, Distinguished Professor of Forestry and Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management at Oregon State University, who is coordinating feedstock logistics for the NARA project. They are, in fact, often simply left behind. To make wide-scale collection and transport of forest residuals economically viable will require increasing efficiency.

Drying out the material in the forest could dramatically reduce the weight of loads and thereby lower costs, he said. The researchers will also look at trailer improvements that might lower transportation costs and improve access to the forest.

The NARA researchers aim to increase efficiency in collection and transportation and to reduce supply chain costs in several ways:

  • Evaluating current harvesting and transportation methods
  • Reducing collection costs
  • Increasing the density of forest residues before transport
  • Improving transportation efficiency
  • Assessing methods to meet feedstock specifications

“To develop facilities for a sustainable biofuels aviation industry or for chemical products, industry investors are going to have to know that they have a sustainable and economic supply of feedstock to meets their needs,” he said.

The researchers expect that the proposed work will improve regional forest residue and energy crop supply chains to support a biofuels industry.

Using advanced genetic sequencing research to develop new lines of Douglas fir and poplar trees that would make effective energy crops

The researchers hope to identify future energy crop feedstock lines that may improve the production of potentially valuable petro-chemical substitutes. In particular, they aim to identify and optimize the most favorable traits for energy crops as well as develop and assessthe best pretreatment options.

To make fuel, researchers must break down plant materials to carbohydrates that can be then fermented for producing fuels and chemicals. The biggest challenge in using woody materials for fuel is that wood is tough and not easily broken down.

Researchers have made strides in recent years in using genetics to overcome this challenge. In particular, the researchers have worked to develop plant lines that have different cellular structures that can be more easily broken down. They have also worked to develop bio-based molecular compounds that could serve as petrochemical replacements. And, they have developed new types of catalytic chemistry. Because of the Northwest wood products industry, the researchers have significant expertise in Douglas fir plant biology, with more than 40 years of work in genetic selection and testing.

The researchers will be looking at the chemistry of stem, roots, and bark tissues to see what can be most readily converted to biofuels and co-products. They will be assessing which Douglas fir individuals are susceptible to fermentation and have genes that will provide optimal characteristics for fuel production.

Plant lines will be evaluated in a new phenomics laboratory, which provides for the detailed study of plant characteristics. Researchers in the phenomics center will be able to conduct computer-controlled, real-time screening of a large number of plants to look at a variety of characteristics that are important for development of an energy crop.

The researchers will be looking at the plants’ chemical compositions as well as their genomics. In particular, they will study the genetic make-up of the plants and work to identify gene-based markers for plant characteristics. The researchers aim to gain understanding at the molecular level of factors that would affect feedstock performance.