Researchers eye insect-killed trees as fuel source
University of Idaho researchers are aiding efforts to create gasoline and other fuels from insect-killed trees.
The research team, led by Colorado State University, recently received a $10 million grant from USDA to turn insect-killed timber into liquid biofuel, said Jay O’Laughlin, UI professor of forestry and policy sciences.
Working with Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Cool Planet Energy Systems as a technology partner, the scientists developed a process that uses fast pyrolysis, or burning the wood at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. That releases the hydrocarbons to create oil, which can be refined into any hydrocarbon fuel. The product they made, gasoline reformate, can be blended with gasoline, O’Laughlin said.
The company plans to distribute small modular plants across the country, O’Laughlin said. This will reduce the cost of transporting wood to them.
The biorefineries can be moved as needed.
“You can pick up the modular production units and move them somewhere else,” O’Laughlin said.
National forests, particularly in the West, are full of dead timber. Turning it into fuel would remove waste and a potential wildfire hazard, O’Laughlin said.
National forests are the primary source of bark beetle problems because of the lack of active management due to budget and policy issues, O’Laughlin said.
The researchers will focus on insect-killed trees, but other low-value wood resources could also be part of the mix, O’Laughlin said.
State and private landowners generally don’t allow their forests to reach the point where they have extensive bark beetle outbreaks, he said, instead managing forest health by thinning stands and removing slash.
“The thinnings have very little value unless they reach commercial size of 8 or 9 inches in diameter — anything less than that has almost no value,” O’Laughlin said.
In Idaho and Montana, laws require logging slash to be removed. The landowner usually burns it.
“What we’re doing now is taking a potential energy resource and using it to make air pollution,” O’Laughlin said. “This (using the materials for biofuels) is a much better societal choice.”
Cool Planet Energy Systems expects to have several dozen plants running by the end of the five-year project, with the first opening in Alexandria, La., in 2014, O’Laughlin said.