At the 2013 conference for the American Planning Association of Idaho, I was introduced to a cutting edge way of making jet fuel.
The University of Idaho, in partnership with University of Washington and Washington State University, received 2 USDA grants totaling $80 million. The University of Idaho presenters explained part of this grant is dedicated to making jet fuel from wood byproducts. The reason they concentrated on jet fuel is because jets are not going to be powered by alternative fuels like solar or electric in the near future. The power demands are too high at this point to make electric jets a feasible option.
Other than the obvious advantage of being able to power an aircraft with a truly renewable resource, there are huge implications for forest town economies. There are a few wood byproducts that the U of I team talked about using, but their focus product is logging waste. When I was working in the logging industry, it always astonished me the shear magnitude of the “slash” piles the logging created. Traditionally these slash piles were burned after the job was completed during the wet season. In recent years, there has been an increase of wood waste chipping for co-gen plants that produce electricity or heating. Unfortunately, the cost of chipping is so high it wouldn’t be feasible without federal subsidies. The on-site chipper the company I worked for uses is absolutely gigantic. According to Ryon Reginato, the “Forest Foreman” at Ikola Logging Inc. of McCall, Idaho, the chipper burns approximately 150 gallons of diesel per 8 hour work day. This fuel demand comes from an 18 liter power-plant that produces over 850 horse power. This inefficiency is part of what the bio fuels team is trying to overcome. In the discussion at the APA conference, a large portion of the presentation time was devoted to overcoming obstacles in terms of how to transport the wood byproduct . The transportation cost seems to be the issue constituting the largest portion of bio jet fuel cost. One proposed idea on how to cut costs of wood byproduct transport is creating centralized factories or stations.
These production locations would need to be centralized where multiple logging operations could drop off their by-product. The issues involved with transportation are more intricate than one might think. First, if logging operations hauled un-chipped slash material out of the woods, there would be a huge amount of air space in the loads. Slash, usually composed of the branches, limbs, and unused tops of trees, is inherently hard to compact into a small container. This is to say the trucks wouldn’t reach their maximum carrying capacity before the space in the trailers is filled, which means inefficient trips. Another logistical problem is getting the trucks capable of hauling chips, or “chip vans,” into tight mountain roads. The standard logging truck has a stackable trailer system that allows them to navigate tight terrain. This trailer system also has a pivot in the middle of the trailer so when it is loaded, it can still make its way out of tight roads. On the contrary, chip vans are a traditional trailer setup without articulation, which presents the problem of transporting waste into an area where the chip vans can access. If there was a solution for getting the chips or slash out of the logging areas in an efficient manner, it would make bio jet fuels a more feasible alternative to fossil fuel.
Assuming that a solution to transporting the bio waste out of the forest becomes economical, the next step is instituting the processing plants. These processing plants, as explained by the U of I presenters, would be located in otherwise unused forestry related buildings, or mills. There are towns that historically or currently depend on forestry as their main employment sector.The potential for this bio fuel project has promise, especially with regards to the revitalization of economically distressed small towns across the inter-mountain northwest. There are great benefit of utilizing unused mills or cooperating with running mills. First- there is a trained workforce that needs jobs. Second- there are unused buildings that could only benefit from the renovations that would be associated with a new us. If the obstacles that bio jet fuel production faces now can be overcome the potential benefits are staggering, reduced dependance on foreign oil, increased use of a currently wasted forest product, and economic viability for otherwise suffering small towns. This topic is amazingly intricate and I only scratched the surface in this blog, if you’re interested to learn more, visit these links: