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Biofuels expand beyond corn-based ethanol to woody biomass

While the U.S. biofuels industry has focused almost exclusively on corn-based ethanol, there is growing interest in producing fuels from other feedstocks, such as tree trunks, limbs and leaves.

UC Davis will receive $3.1 million of a $40 million biofuels grant announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Led by researchers at the University of Washington, the five-year project is intended to expand what has been a Midwest-centric biofuels industry into Washington, Oregon, Idaho, western Montana and Northern California.

While the U.S. biofuels industry has focused almost exclusively on corn-based ethanol, there is growing interest in producing fuels from other feedstocks, such as tree trunks, limbs and leaves. But little is known about the economic viability or environmental impacts of growing trees for so-called “woody biomass” and converting it to fuel.

This new grant, and another for the same amount to be led by Washington State University, will begin to fill in those blanks. Three more USDA grants of $15 million to $25 million are going to projects in Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa.

The project that includes UC Davis will investigate the potential of farming hybrid poplar trees to be turned into aviation fuels, diesel and gasoline. Some 400,000 acres of poplars will be planted, and five commercial biorefineries will be built.

The lead researcher on the UC Davis project is Bryan Jenkins, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering, and director of the UC Davis Energy Institute. Jenkins said his team will be analyzing the impacts of biofuel production on regional economies and environments.

“When a farmer stops growing corn or pasture or pine trees, and starts growing poplar trees on that land instead, that change may affect soil health, regional greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall profitability of the farm enterprise,” Jenkins said.

“We will be characterizing those changes. Our goal is to help the agriculture and forest-products industries find the best ways to integrate these new crops.”

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