September 6, 2015

Poplar trees are best bet for biofuel in UW-led research project

Poplar materials, including bark, leaves and wood, are used to make
cellulosic ethanol.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

(September 6, 2015)  Groves of poplar trees could one day fuel our vehicles and be the source of chemicals that we use in our daily lives.

The research, led by the University of Washington, will seed the world’s first wood-based cellulosic ethanol production facility. The handful of other cellulosic ethanol factories use agricultural waste to convert feedstock into sustainable transportation fuels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project is in its final year, and the consortium of 10 academic institutions and private companies will gather at the UW Sept. 8-10 to share results and finalize research projects. They identified hybrid poplars as a beneficial feedstock because of the tree’s fast growth, year-round availability and wood that is readily broken down to fermentable sugars.

ZeaChem, a Colorado-based biofuels company and one of the industry partners in this study, is moving ahead with plans to build a commercial production facility in Boardman, Oregon, in 2016 that will produce fuel-grade ethanol and bio chemicals.

“We’ve established that poplar is a viable and sustainable feedstock for the production of fuels and bio-based chemicals,” said Rick Gustafson, a UW professor of bioresource science and engineering, who leads the project. “We’ve provided fundamental information that our industry partners can use to convince investors that production of fuels and chemicals from poplar feedstock is a great investment.”

Shannon Ewanick with the UW’s Biofuels and Bioproducts Laboratory operates
the pretreatment reactor, known as a “steam gun.”Dennis Wise/University of Washington

The research team, called Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest, set up five demonstration tree farms with different varieties of poplar. None of the trees is genetically engineered, but instead researchers bred them to thrive in different environments and to grow fast. The trees can gain up to 20 feet a year, allowing for a harvest every two or three years.

“They grow like mad,” Gustafson said. “The production growth rate of these trees has just been phenomenal.”

When a poplar tree is cut, its stump naturally sprouts new shoots and the next generation of trees grow out of the parent stumps. Each tree can go through about six cycles of this regrowth before new poplars must be planted, Gustafson said.

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