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Laying the Foundation for Change

In response to a February 2007 executive order by Gov. Christine Gregoire to drastically reduce state fossil fuel emissions and move toward energy independence, WSU scientists and Washington State Departments of Agriculture; Ecology; and Community, Trade, and Economic Development are conducting research leading to new plants that can be used for fuels and bioproducts. These researchers are exploring fundamental plant characteristics at the genetic level as well as alternative plants from across the globe to identify those most economically and environmentally suited for Washington. They also are examining agronomic best management practices and ways to protect plants from disease, insects, weeds, and weather.

Economically speaking

Jonathan Yoder, a natural resource economist in the WSU School of Economic Sciences, and 16 others in the ARC, the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences and WSU Extension are assessing Washington biofuel markets and their potential development and will make recommendations to state lawmakers about which policies will best promote in-state production of biofuels. “We are looking at how to increase both public and private investment in biofuels and how to assist in the development of feedstocks, the raw materials for biofuels,” Yoder said.

Jonathan Yoder
Jonathan Yoder

The costs to produce feedstocks and biofuel in Washington are still high compared to other regions and traditional fuel types, according to Yoder. “The reason is twofold,” he said. “First, the regional climate and high production costs restrict the production of corn for ethanol in Washington, and farmers understand they can be more successful growing something else. Second, technology is improving but is not yet able to support the type of biofuel production that Washington has a comparative advantage at.”

The research team is considering policies that will provide incentives for technology to develop toward the most environmentally friendly fuel types. After the team makes recommendations to lawmakers, the policies they choose to implement will affect people across Washington, including fuel consumers and agricultural producers.

“Hopefully, policies that promote production of feedstocks will encourage a larger set of crop types grown in the state and create a more diverse agriculture industry and help reduce the long-term environmental impacts of energy use,” he continued.

The work of Kate Painter, sustainable systems analyst for WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, provides foundational information for Yoder’s study. She analyzed the economics of a variety of oilseed crops in multiple regions of the state, outlining the pros and cons of producing potential biofuel crops such as corn, canola, soybeans, camelina, and mustard. Her study showed that:

  • The cool maritime climate of western Washington is promising for canola growth, but production costs are higher there, land is less available, and there is a risk of cross-pollination issues with other local crops.
  • Camelina is a consistent performer for eastern Washington, and although current prices are relatively low, the market is expected to grow as the plant gains approval for use in human and animal consumption.
  • Mustard is a more consistent crop than canola, but yields and prices are typically lower.

Breaking down biological barriers

Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis

A primary barrier to using any woody plant in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other bioproducts is their fundamental chemical construction. WSU Regents Professor Norman G. Lewis, director of the Institute of Biological Chemistry and an ARC scientist, is focusing on how to break down those biological barriers to make ethanol production easier and more cost effective.

Lewis and graduate students reviewing their work
Lewis and graduate students reviewing their work

A major emphasis of Lewis’ research involves determining how plants form the structural lignins in their vascular apparatus (akin to the human skeleton). While lignins help give plants and trees structural rigidity, they must be broken down or eliminated in order for lignocelluloses to be used for production of papers, fuel, and other bioproducts.

The Lewis group reported a breakthrough technology in early 2007 that was featured on the cover of the June 2007 American Journal of Botany. They designed experiments to reduce the lignin content in plants by nearly two-thirds but still maintain the requisite structural properties for growth, development, and harvesting. “We envision that manipulating structural properties of plants in ways such as this will aid in the production of biofuels such as ethanol,” Lewis said.

Lewis is providing his expertise to one of the three new bioenergy centers recently funded by the U.S. Department of Energy for $25 million each for the next five years.

Feedstock System Development »

View the brochure in PDF format here.

Brochure cover

Recent Bioeconomy Grant Awards

John Browse, $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation for “Biochemical Genomics: Quizzing Chamical Factories of Oilseeds.”

Michael Neff, $383,910 from the National Science Foundation for investigating the “Role of Brassinosteroid Inactivation in Plant Development.”

Norman Lewis, $750,000, $150,000, and $750,000 from the Midwest Research Institute and the Bio-energy Science Center (BESC).