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Test plots of poplar trees may hold key to bio-fuels development

The recent drop in oil prices put the brakes on biofuel production, but industry insiders believe in the long-term promise of the technology.
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on September 17, 2015 10:33AM

Rick Stonex, right, tree farm manager for GreenWood Resources, extols the bio-fuel potential of poplar trees to incoming Oregon State University students.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Rick Stonex, right, tree farm manager for GreenWood Resources, extols the bio-fuel potential of poplar trees to incoming Oregon State University students.

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Jefferson, Ore., farmer Rob Miller leased acreage to GreenWood Resources, which grows hybrid poplar trees to produce bio-energy fuel and chemicals.

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press

Jefferson, Ore., farmer Rob Miller leased acreage to GreenWood Resources, which grows hybrid poplar trees to produce bio-energy fuel and chemicals.

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JEFFERSON, ORE. — It’s like leasing ground to the future. On about 90 acres that in the past was planted in vegetables and corn for silage, researchers are raising varieties of fast-growing poplar trees that can be used to make bio-fuels and other products.

It’s an idea that’s been promoted and federally funded for several years, but the promise of making fuel and industrial chemicals from renewable plants instead of petroleum has yet to fall in step with market reality.

If the two link up — believers say it’s inevitable — Pacific Northwest and Northern California farmers might have another crop to consider.

Jefferson, Ore., landowner and farmer Rob Miller, who leased about 90 acres to GreenWood Resources, a global timber company based in Portland, said marginal land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley might be ideal for growing hybrid poplars.

Acreage in the 45-mile stretch from Albany south to Eugene that is not irrigated and is used for grass seed production, for example, might work for poplars, he said.

The trees regrow after being cut and can produce six crops in a 20-year period. After the initial planting cost, they require little care and can be harvested and chipped with forage cutting machinery. With additional irrigation water likely to be hard to get in the future, growing trees for bio-chemicals is an attractive option, Miller said.

“It would be a really good crop if the market turned around,” he said.

There’s the rub. The U.S. push to develop alternative fuels is stalled by a drop in oil prices and reserves tapped by fracking technology. Bio-fuels require simultaneous cart-and-horse development of expensive refineries and the acreage to feed them.

But many believe bio-fuels’ time is coming. The environmental cost of fossil fuels, instability in the Middle East and the limit of U.S. supplies could raise oil prices.

“Which puts this stuff right back into the sweet spot,” said Rick Stonex, westside tree farm manager for GreenWood Resources.

GreenWood is part of the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest consortium, which includes other industry partners and researchers from six universities. The consortium is one of six research efforts funded by the USDA since 2011, compiling a total of $146 million.

The ultimate goal of the project is to produce “drop in” fuel that is compatible with conventional cars, trucks and aircraft. Given the state of the oil industry, however, the partners are focusing on high-value bio-chemicals such as acetic acid, ethyl acetate and cellulosic ethanol, that are produced in the first stages of the bio-fuel process. Those chemicals can replace petroleum-based products used to make plastics, paints and even runway de-icer.

In additon to the Jefferson project site, researchers are growing hybrid poplars in Hayden, Idaho; Pilchuck, Wash.; and Clarksburg, Calif.

GreenWood also has a poplar plantation growing alongside Interstate 84 near Boardman, in Eastern Oregon. Those trees are intended to feed a refinery planned by ZeaChem Inc. The company plans to break ground on the plant next spring.

Sixteen students who will be freshmen at Oregon State University this fall toured the Jefferson test plot Sept. 15 with GreenWood’s Stonex and Rich Shuren, the company’s director of tree improvement operations.

One of the students asked Stonex if bio-fuels would be viable in his lifetime.

“I think you guys will see it,” Stonex replied.



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