Two five-year projects to create aviation fuels of the future out of tree plantations and low-value wood products in the Pacific Northwest were announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and will provide $9.8 million in grants to researchers at Oregon State University.

The OSU work is part of consortia that include the University of Washington, Washington State University, other agencies and private industry – a diverse program of $80 million in research, education, and industrial collaboration.

Participants believe they will develop new ways to produce biofuels and other chemicals while protecting wild forests, growing new biomass in fast-growing hardwood plantations of poplars and alders, and putting to use forest harvest residue.

OSU researchers studying a range of technical issues will receive $5.4 million. Another $4.4 million will establish an important educational component of the program at both the high school and college level, in collaboration with the University of Washington and other education programs in Washington.

“The primary goal of the initiative that deals with forest residue, called the Northwest Aviation Renewables Alliance (NARA), is to find new ways to produce aviation fuel and high-value chemicals using a sustainable supply of biomass,” said John Sessions, a distinguished professor of forestry and holder of the Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management at OSU.

“We hope to create a fuel that’s an exact substitute for existing aviation fuel,” he said. “This is a huge research initiative and an enormous logistical challenge that will require the work of many scientists at OSU and our partner institutions, and ultimately help provide millions of gallons of fuel a year.”

Both projects are funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Much of the OSU work under NARA, Sessions said, will focus on the production and logistics of getting woody biomass out of Pacific Northwest forests at an affordable cost.

“Calculations indicate that the cost of delivered forest wood residue is about half of the production cost of the final products,” Sessions said. “We need to find the best ways to bring residues resulting from harvests and forest health treatments out of the forests and get them to the processing plants.”

Other OSU scientists and engineers will also be involved in studies of forest health and hazard reduction; modeling of the biomass supply; protection of long-term site productivity; impacts on wildlife; genetic improvement of conifers; worker health and safety; and other topics.

In the second project, called System for Advanced Biofuels Production from Woody Biomass in the Pacific Northwest, $4.4 million will establish a new bioenergy education program at OSU. Led by Bioresource Research Director Kate Field, this is part of a $40 million grant to the University of Washington involving bioenergy industries, regional universities and Extension services.

“OSU will prepare students to advance bioenergy research, develop bioenergy businesses and provide leadership in the regional establishment of a bioenergy economy,” Field said. “The funds will provide for scholarships and programs at the pre-college, bachelor’s and master’s levels.”

Steve Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology at OSU and an international leader in the genetics of trees, will conduct part of the program that deals with tree plantations grown for this purpose.

Strauss will receive $577,000 from the USDA to study ways to avoid gene movement from genetically engineered trees to wild forests. While not in use today, such trees are expected to help increase economic efficiency and reduce environmental impacts from dedicated energy plantations.