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As oil prices again rise above $102 a barrel, there has been renewed national interest in biomass-based fuels. The Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI), a joint project between the Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA), will aim to fund $50 million worth of research into biofuels and biomass-based petroleum supplements, which can be added to conventional oil products without modification of existing fuel distribution networks or engines.

Washington State is at the forefront of research into woody biomass sources. A recent comprehensive state-forest biomass study revealed the potential energy uses of the millions of tons of slash – brush, twigs, and small tree parts—left behind by the timber industry each year. It found that 4.4 million dry tons (BDT) of forest biomass is produced annually, but only about one-third of this is being utilized. Washington State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have joined forces to find the most efficient ways of converting this forest biomass into jet fuel. In one-such test run, Alaska Airlines recently powered 75 flights with a mixture of 20% aviation biofuel.

As promising as this energy source sounds, it is not without controversy. One of the biggest hurdles to industry adoption is sourcing biomass. Biomass has low energy density—it takes a large amount of material to create a small amount of fuel—so transporting it from the forest to refineries will require a tremendous logistical challenge. Secondly, estimates of available biomass do not account for changes in timber demand or weather patterns that might reduce yield. The unreliability of waste biomass may make it an inadequate source of fuel for the high-volume needs of the aviation industry.

Additionally, a number of groups are concerned with the health impacts of biomass refineries. Specifically, particulate pollution from both production and burning of these biofuels produce “nanoparticles” that can lead to potentially deadly health problems. Environmental groups in Washington State—including No Biomass Burn, Olympic Environmental Council, Western Temperate Rainforest Network, Port Townsend AirWatchers, Olympic Forest Coalition and the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club—would like to see more controls in place for preventing the nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds that are released during biofuel production.

Overall, woody biomass has the potential to alleviate some of our jet fuel woes, while reducing carbon emissions, but a number of health and industry hurdles must be carefully overcome before we will be able to fly across the country with trees in the tank.