STANWOOD, Wash. — A monster harvester easily clipped and chipped rows of willowy poplar trees here last week.
The next step — trucking the chips to a biorefinery and making commercial fuel — will have to wait.
Three years into a five-year, $40 million program, a University of Washington-led project to produce cellulosic fuel has run smack into an unforeseen problem — $3-a-gallon gas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the UW $40 million in 2011 to head up Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest, a consortium of six universities and two private companies.
The original ambition was to produce from deciduous trees a commercially viable cellulosic substitute for petroleum-based gasoline.
With oil prices tumbling and still no carbon tax on burning fossil fuels, the project’s focus has fundamentally shifted.
Instead of transportation fuels, the end product will be chemicals used in paints, adhesives, plastics and other products such as de-icing salts.
The chemicals are produced during the process of turning biomass into fuel.
“Converting poplar trees all the way to fuel is going to be tough financially,” said the program’s leader, UW professor Rick Gustafson, a chemical engineer.
“If we stay with that goal, there’s a good chance we won’t get anything done,” he said.
Gustafson said the project will still lay the foundation for a Northwest biofuels industry, assuming it’s ever financially practical. He also said efforts elsewhere are progressing and that concerns about climate change may re-energize the push for green fuels.
But he acknowledged that critics have a point when they lampoon cellulosic fuel as the technology that’s perpetually five years from fruition.
“I wish I could say it’s (baloney), but it’s true,” he said.
As part of the project, Portland-based Greenwood Resources is overseeing fast-growing poplar trees planted in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. The tree farms are testing whether sufficient biomass can be grown under different growing conditions.
The other company involved in the project, ZeaChem, briefly produced cellulosic ethanol from wood waste at a refinery in Boardman, Ore., in 2013. The Colorado-based company announced employee layoffs a few weeks later.
ZeaChem received $12 million of the $40 million grant. The company did not provide anyone to give an update on the biorefinery’s status.
Gustafson said that as a start-up company, ZeaChem can’t afford to make cellulosic fuel while fossil fuels are relatively cheap.
He said cellulosic fuels could be made for about $4 a gallon, but that doesn’t include the cost of building a refinery, which could double the fuel price.
If oil were still $140 a barrel, biorefineries would be springing up, Gustafson said.
Washington State University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, University of California-Davis and Walla Walla Community College also are involved in the project.
Besides the tree farm near Stanwood in Snohomish County, Greenwood manages ones in Jefferson, Ore.; Hayden, Idaho, and Clarksburg, Calif.
Trees planted within the past two years were cut recently to spur growth. The trees will regrow with multiple stocks, producing more biomass. “You have to treat them like a crop,” Greenwood tree farm manager Gary Gressett said.
In Snohomish County, a Case New Holland forage harvester mowed down the trees, planted in rows 12 feet apart, 1,450 to an acre. The machine spit wood chips out the back. With no place to economically truck them, the chips will stay where they fell.