University of Washington research shows opportunities for poplar as biofuel feedstock

In Washington state, a five-year, $40 million study is laying the foundation for a Pacific Northwest industry that converts sustainably produced poplar feedstock into fuels and chemicals.

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.”

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