Biofuel grant will create jobs in Boardman

The state's two large universities will lead efforts to develop biofuels and regional renewable-energy markets under $80 million grants that are among the largest ever awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency announced Wednesday.

The grants include a $12 million subgrant for demonstration trials for production of bio-based jet and diesel fuels and bio-based gasoline at ZeaChem's plant under construction at the Port of Morrow near Boardman, about 50 miles south of Kennewick.

The grants allow Washington State University and the University of Washington to lead research into the conversion of Northwest wood and forest residues into biofuels.

Researchers say wood biofuels have the potential to help the region recover from the loss of natural resource jobs in recent years and to use existing infrastructure, such as timber and pulp mills, to serve another regional powerhouse: the airline industry.

The University of Washington will lead a consortium of universities and businesses, including ZeaChem, in a $40 million project to research converting poplar trees grown on plantations into aviation, diesel and gasoline fuels.

ZeaChem is expected to open a biorefinery capable of producing up to 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol by the end of the year. The grant announced Wednesday will allow it to add refining units to the plant to convert its cellulosic ethanol to jet and diesel fuels in test quantities in 2013. Production of bio-based gasoline would follow in 2015.

The new grant should lead to the hiring of about 75 contruction workers and 10 full-time operations jobs. That brings the total full-time jobs that will be available at the plant to 35.

"These are very good paying jobs in rural America," said Jim Imbler, ZeaChem president.

ZeaChem plans to later add a production-scale plant at the Port of Morrow.

Washington State University will lead another $40 million project to research the potential for using residual wood after logging and forest thinning for aviation fuel.

Partners in the two projects include universities, research entities and corporations, such as timber giant Weyerhaeuser and the largest poplar grower in North American from Washington and nine other states: Oregon, Colorado, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

"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," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. He made the announcement at a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport terminal.

For years, much of the focus in the biofuels industry has been on developing ethanol for automobile use, but in recent months, the federal government has increased efforts to develop biofuels for other uses.

Air travel is responsible for about 3 percent of greenhouse gases. Airlines have been seeking ways to control their fluctuating fuel costs and reduce their carbon footprint by turning to alternative fuel sources that can be interchanged with petroleum-based kerosene.

The Pentagon has pushed forward on a research project to produce algae-based biofuel, while airlines have considered options including cooking oil and a combination of coconut oil and babassu oil, which comes from a palm tree in northern Brazil.

Last month, President Obama announced a partnership to invest up to $510 million over three years to produce advanced aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation.

Keys to the success of the UW project include developing tree varieties to best suit refineries -- which could include five or more biorefineries similar to the Boardman project -- and growing them within a reasonable distance of refineries, said Jeff Nuss, president and CEO of GreenWood Resources of Portland, a key partner on the grant and the largest poplar grower in North America.

The WSU project will evaluate biofuels from planting through growing, harvest and conversion to ensure an economically viable industry, said Norman Lewis, who heads up the Institute of Biological Chemistry at Washington State University.

"We are looking at all the bottlenecks that have prevented these things from being readily converted before," he said. "We think there is potential to replace some of the natural resource jobs lost in the region in recent years."

Overall, the five-year program announced by the Agriculture Department includes more than $136 million in research and development grants to public- and private-sector partners in 22 states.