PULLMAN, Wash. – Overcoming key obstacles that prevent wood-based jet fuel and petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable is the focus of a new $40 million project of the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance.

NARA includes a broad consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories and private industry.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this morning announced that WSU and University of Washington each will receive a five-year, $40 million grant to help develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. They are among the largest grants ever awarded by USDA and follow a rigorous national competition. Approximately two-thirds of the funding of these grants is directed to research, with the remaining targeted to education and outreach/public awareness.

“This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively-priced, American-made biofuels industry,” Vilsack said. “Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”

The WSU-led grant aims to address the urgent national need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a new, viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest where forests cover almost half of the region. The Northwest also has established oil refining and distribution assets as well as a significant aviation industry.

The project also will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics.

In addition to using wood and mill residues, the NARA project aims to develop new, wood-based energy crops and improve the economics of that industry with co-products as well. A major goal will be to address how to better understand and use wood lignin, a glue-like material constituting up to about 30 percent of some woods. Lignin is often considered to be one of the key issues adversely affecting economic viability for production of wood-derived plant chemical products.

“We believe we can begin to resolve the issues that have prevented wood-based biofuels and other petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable with some new strategies and the diversity of skills represented on the NARA team,” said Norman G. Lewis, Regents Professor and director of WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. “If we are successful, the potential to begin to replace the natural resources jobs lost in the region over the past several years is very high.”

Lewis and Michael P. Wolcott, LP Distinguished Professor of Wood Materials and director of WSU’s Institute for Sustainable Design, will lead NARA.

The current focus for NARA has been spurred by the recent harsh criticism of the U.S. biofuels industry for failing to translate existing technology into economically viable industries. Key challenges to be overcome by NARA include resolving various scientific/technical obstacles that prevent economic viability. Sustainability – economic, environmental, and social – is also key. NARA researchers will use specific metrics to assess and evaluate technological progress against critical milestones throughout the project.

“To truly realize a new industry, we must begin considering all of the factors that make any major industry run successfully,” said Wolcott. “One aspect of NARA’s strength lies in the integration of products, market and workforce development, all with an eye toward the success of the existing forest industry and its relationship to communities and the environment.”

NARA includes Gevo, Greenwood Resources, Catchlight Energy (a joint venture of Chevron and Weyerhaeuser) and Weyerhaeuser from private industry, along with WSU, Montana State University, the National Center for Genome Resources, Oregon State University, Pennsylvania State University, Salish-Kootenai College, University of Idaho, University of Minnesota, University of Montana and UW, the U.S. Forest Service, including the Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, which is jointly operated by WSU and UW.

The alliance’s private industry partners said they value the opportunity to join a larger effort.

“The consortium is designed to capitalize on the unique contributions of the participants, and Weyerhaeuser is pleased to be part of that,” said Dan Fulton, Weyerhaeuser president and CEO. “Sustainability is absolutely critical to the successful production of feedstocks and aviation biofuel on an economical scale, and we’re proud to bring more than a century of forest science and innovative solutions to the effort.”

Patrick Gruber, CEO of Gevo, said the greatest challenge currently facing the development of advanced biorefineries is “the absence of readily available, cost effective and sustainable biomass feedstock sources.”

“This alliance will help foster the development of a biorefinery industry in the Pacific Northwest by aligning the region’s major academic institutions, forest product companies and land management entities around a common vision – to create a thriving bio-based economy,” he said.