Cantwell calls for biofuels center at WSU Tri-Cities

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 26, 2012 

The Tri-Cities is primed to be a leader in creating a new, cleaner alternative jet fuel, Sen. Maria Cantwell said Saturday at the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus.

Cantwell toured the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at the university's Richland campus, and talked about how a new aviation biofuel research hub could be in the Tri-Cities.

The recently passed Federal Aviation Administration bill calls for the creation of a Center of Excellence in the area of biofuel.

"The Center of Excellence could greatly benefit and stand on the shoulders of the amazing work already being done in the Tri-Cities," Cantwell said.

She called on the FAA to take the next steps to create the center as soon as possible, and said she was in the Tri-Cities to encourage officials to apply to have the center here.

"I think they have a very good shot," she said.

The focus of the Center of Excellence is supposed to be on how to get jet fuel out of a cleaner source, which already is being done at the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory.

The joint facility, which opened in 2008 on the WSU Tri-Cities campus, is where scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and WSU work together to find the most efficient ways to turn plants into biofuel and plant-based products, said Franny White, a PNNL spokeswoman.

This year, PNNL received $13 million for its biofuel research and WSU Tri-Cities received about $3.5 million, she said.

Jud Virden, acting associate laboratory director for the Energy and Environment Directorate at PNNL, thanked Cantwell for being a longtime supporter of PNNL and WSU Tri-Cities and their collective efforts in biomass conversion.

He said more than 90 researchers from PNNL, WSU and graduate students are working in the "world class" research and development facility at the Richland campus. They've received more than $90 million in research and development federal grants since 2006 and "it's only the tip of the iceberg."

"There's airplanes flying now with blends of biomass fuel," Virden said. "But we know we still have a lot to do."

Washington is home to leaders in the research, development and use of aviation biofuels, Cantwell said, while highlighting successes including Alaska Airlines running 75 flights powered with a 20 percent mixture of aviation biofuel in November.

PNNL also is working with Imperium Renewables, a Seattle-based biofuel producer, to develop a new method to make biomass-based drop-in jet fuels.

Biofuels should be a national focus and could be "very, very big" for the economy, not only in terms of stabilizing the volatility of fuel prices but by creating a lot of new jobs, Cantwell said.

"The cost of jet fuel has gone up 267 percent in the last 12 years ... and we know fuel costs are continuing to go up," she said. "I think everybody ... is looking at higher fuel prices and wondering what we can do to change the course we're on."

The answer to that is what's happening right now in the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, she said.

"We're excited that the Tri-Cities may be able to carry on what is the next mission of our country," she said.

w Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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