Grant focuses on better biofuel

PULLMAN – Developing plants that include more of what it takes to replace petrochemicals in fuels, plastics and other applications is the focus of an $840,000 USDA grant awarded to WSU Regents Professor Norman G. Lewis.

The three-year award, which was announced April 10, is part of an $18.4 million investment into biomass research, development and demonstration projects by USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy. The funded projects specifically aim to break down critical barriers to making the production of biomass more efficient and cost effective. Only 21 of the 750 proposals submitted from researchers throughout the U.S. received funding.

Jim Fitzgerald, chief of staff for the undersecretary of USDA’s Rural Development agency and a WSU alumnus, presented the grant.

“Biofuels get most of the attention, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” Fitzgerald said. “More and more of the things we make from oil we can now, in a sense, grow in the fields. The carbohydrate economy is a tremendous opportunity, and this grant will help unlock that potential.” 

Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, agreed.

“This grant reinforces WSU’s leadership position in the plant sciences nationally,” he said. “Piece by piece, our scientists are contributing to the development of viable, sustainable replacements for petroleum-based products.”

Lewis, director of the WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry, said the project will focus on substantially reducing foreign petroleum imports by re-engineering nonfood plants to be used in new ways for a variety of products, including biofuels and the polymers used in some plastics.

“With the escalating cost of oil, political turmoil in oil-producing regions of the world and the realization that oil reserves are diminishing more quickly today than ever before, one is going to have to find some sort of replacement,” Lewis said. “The question is whether we can come up with plant materials that can truly replicate petrochemical components.”

He has been working with Brian Goodall and other researchers at Imperium Renewables, a private biodiesel producer based in western Washington focused on finding plant-based replacements for petrochemicals.

“Environmentally and economically sustainable feedstock supply is vital for the growing biofuels industry,” Goodall said. “The novel research anticipated in this joint WSU/Imperium Renewables proposal will lead to low-cost biofuel feedstocks that will not compete in any way with food crops.  Additionally, we will be exploring the derivation and application of new, high-value biological building blocks for use in today’s polymer industry and also novel bio-polymers and bio-materials, further diminishing our dependency on fossil fuels.”

Specifically, the team will home in on the development of phenols, aromatic compounds with some of the same qualities as petrochemicals, in easy-to-grow poplar trees. “We’re using biochemistry to push the plants to make these substances in ways that hopefully can become of utility,” Lewis said. He noted that the U.S. aviation industry is working to become “carbon neutral” in the environment; a plant-based aviation fuel would help them accomplish that.

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