Our Voice: Homegrown biofuel technology ought to benefit Tri-Cities

January 25, 2013 

Sure, BioChemCat's potential to make biofuel production commercially viable holds promise for a planet suffering the environmental consequences of its addiction to fossil fuels.

But Tri-Citians can be excused for wondering what's in it for us.

Washington State University Tri-Cities' Center for Bioproducts and Bioenergy recently announced that the technology is about six months away from commercial production of jet fuel and diesel.

The Tri-Cities has the resources needed to exploit the technology as soon as it's commercially available -- plenty of nearby ag wastes, a technically savvy workforce, transportation infrastructure, vacant land and the brain trust needed to keep pushing the technology's boundaries.

The research is being conducted by WSU Tri-Cities in cooperation with the Port of Benton, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and startup company Clean-Vantage.

Taxpayers put up $1.5 million to pay for the BioChemCat pilot project. Seeing that investment so close to paying off is gratifying.

But we want that hometown connection to reap economic rewards for the Mid-Columbia.

The potential environmental benefits for the planet are significant. Unlike some other biofuel technologies, which require farmland to be diverted to growing feed stock, the BioChemCat process uses waste.

Even better, it doesn't care much which wastes. Wheat straw, winery waste, hop waste, switch grass, municipal solid waste and waste from logging operations are all suitable.

In other words, it's a way for growers and waste treatment plant managers to turn a liability into an asset.

Biofuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels. Biodiesel, for example, produces 78.5 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum diesel, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The technology is expected to yield more fuel than other processes, potentially making more than 70 gallons of jet fuel per ton of dry materials.

Washington alone has an annual production of more than 16.9 million tons of underutilized biomass, according to a recent study by the state Department of Ecology and WSU. That's enough biomass to produce almost 1.2 billion gallons of jet fuel.

The impact of that huge potential would stretch to rural America. Initial processing can be done in small-scale local facilities, close to wherever wastes are produced, then the partially refined material can be shipped for upgrading into advanced fuels in a few specialized hubs.

The next step for the process is for private enterprise to take the lead in a demonstration plant, Keith Thomsen, assistant director of WSU's' bioproducts center, told the Herald.

We can recommend a place for it.

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