Some people think of poplar trees as akin to weeds. After all, they can grow 10 feet per year. Here in Oregon, the ubiquitous trees line roadways, shielding properties from wind and elements. The deciduous plants include poplar, aspen and cottonwood, which grow primarily in the Northern Hemisphere.
Poplar trees are generally farmed for lumber, or used to create paper pulp. But what about turning poplars into biofuel? It could happen!
Pulp from poplar trees could be converted into ethanol. In fact, in the Pacific NW construction will begin on a demonstration plant that can produce 1.2 million gallons of ethanol from poplars each year. ZeaChem, which is building the plant, notes that they have raised $34 million for the endeavor.
And the investment for poplar biofuel is very timely for those of us in the northwest corner of the U.S. This is because the push to develop biofuels from crops in this region has fallen, due in part to higher crop prices and lower cost of oil. Add to this financial situation to fact that critics’ voices have been raised about the ethical questions concerning turning food into fuel.
The new ZeaChem plant is the first biofuel operation opening after several years in the region. Other plants in Washington and Oregon are either idle or in bankruptcy. Yet, ironically, the biofuels industry in the U.S. is growing at an impressive rate, thanks to federal and state subsidies. Corn-based ethanol production topped out at 9 billion gallons in 2008 – double the production of 2 years prior.
Perhaps this can be attributed in part to demand. Here in Oregon, state law requires that a certain percentage of fuel be comprised of ethanol. Washington state to the north has a similar mandate.
But getting back to turning poplars into biofuel, ZeaChem is using a technology that harnesses the same bacteria used by termites when they eat wood, according to an Oregonian article. The company’s CEO believes that ethanol from poplars will be price-competitive with oil in the near future.
Of course, all of this is great news considering the federal mandate that requires production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol/biofuels by the year 2022. At least 15 billion gallons must come from cellulosic materials like poplars, rather than corn or sugar cane. Not surprisingly, the mandates are encouraging R&D!
While the conversion of cellulosic material into ethanol is more complicated (maybe costly too) than using corn or sugar crops, there are plenty of companies like ZeaChem that are willing to undertake the challenge! And that is truly Peachy Green news.