WSU professors hope to change the scheme of America’s oil consumption with a $40 million grant for jet biofuel research they received last week.
The grant is part of a bigger package from the United States Department of Agriculture, handing $40 million to the University of Washington, as well. The two schools will work in conjunction with a number of other institutions, companies and community members throughout the Pacific Northwest during the next five years to develop alternatives to petroleum for jet fuel, using wood and wood waste.
Michael Wolcott, an associate professor and co-director for the project, said the research is a step toward lessening American dependency on imported oil.
“We’ve been growing more and more dependent on
foreign oil,” Wolcott said. “From a petroleum and liquid fuel standpoint – just the national security of the whole thing – it’s really important that we get that better in balance.”
If the aviation industry can rely on domestic biofuels instead, imported oil dependency will decline, he said.
Wolcott and co-director Norman Lewis, a WSU regents professor, lead the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance on the project. The group consists of nearly 50 researchers – including a number of WSU professors – from 16 different institutions throughout the region.
The consortium intends to cover an array of focuses, including how to increase the number of products, such as plastics, manufactured at biofuel refineries.
“The average petroleum refinery has 10 to 12 products that emerge from there,” Wolcott said. “Fuel is only one of those. We’re looking at a number of products along that value chain because principally right now, bio-refineries have one or two products that come out of them.”
However, by the end of the five-year funding period, Wolcott hopes the project will do more than enhance jet biofuels and the number of other products made from them. He expects the study will improve science literacy among students and likely boost rural economic development, as well.
Education is one of the main tenets of the project, Wolcott said. He plans to integrate components of the research into education programs from K-12 all the way up to undergraduate and graduate programs at regional universities.
“As a society, we have to be able to understand the components of our energy use and the origins and consequences of those energies,” he said, explaining the purpose of the educational component.
Several NARA outreach teams will work with companies, community groups and others in the region to gauge public response to the research.
“We’ll look to see how this shift or move toward a biofuels economy can become a catalyst toward transforming those regions and communities toward green technologies,” Wolcott said.
Michael Gaffney, the associate director of governmental studies and services at WSU, serves on one of the outreach teams. Gaffney and the others working on outreach will use social media and other tools to communicate with the public about the project.
“This is a pretty big deal regionally, and there are a lot of interested folks,” he said. “This could have far
reaching impact in this region and engaging the people who could be beneficiaries early on is a good way to handle that project.”
Outreach plays one of the most crucial roles in the research, Wolcott said. Like nuclear power and genetically-modified organisms, the concept of promoting bio-fuels may be difficult for the American public to accept.
“We see all sorts of cases where basically we technically can develop something, but society rejects it for whatever reason,” he said.
Though, through education and communication, Wolcott aims to overcome any pushback NARA might face in promoting the shift toward biofuel.