Jet Fuel and the Forest Economy


F-22 Raptor, accessed 10/15/2013,

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.

brush pile

Matt Hersel pushing brush, accessed 10/15/2013,


Slash Pile, personal photo (via Matt Hersel) 10/15/2013

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.

log truck

Logging truck with trailer stacked, accessed 10/15/2013,

loaded truck

loaded log truck, accessed 10/15/2013,


non-articulating trailer, accessed 10/15/2013.

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.

loading the truck

Log Processor, Log Loader and Logging truck, for scale on the size of operation. Accessed 10/17/2013, personal photo (via Matt Hersel)

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:

wikipedia bio jet 

University of Idaho

European bio fuels

Scholarly article on bio fuels in general

2 thoughts on “Jet Fuel and the Forest Economy

  1. Good post Cody,

    I consulted for a local company that had processed wood waste for co-generation plants. Ultimately, they had to get out of the business (even though they were being paid to haul off the wood waste stream from the local landfill), because the cheaper Natural Gas flooding the market these days drove the price of wood chips so low that they couldn’t even make up the cost of their fuel to TRANSPORT the chips to the plant.

    Did the UofI group indicate what their conversion factor was — how many gallons of fuel per ton of wood waste? I know that at least since WWII wood chips have been used as an alternative fuel source for internal combustion engines. But, they never bothered to convert the chips to a liquid propellant, instead they heated the chips in absence of oxygen to produce carbon monoxide (CO) — then burned the CO as the fuel itself. It’s not very efficient, but the German army had converted a number of truck fleets to this fuel source during the war.

    A friend, Steve Coyle (Town-Green), from Oakland, CA has done some work with the firm Alternative Energy Solutions to develop a biodiesel source using the non-edible crop camelina. It’s advantage being that it can grow in arid regions without supplemental irrigation. Steve envisioned planting such crops along roadsides and highway medians throughout California.

    Here’s an article on the Air Force’s initiative to achieve 50% of its domestic jet fuel from alternative fuel blends by 2016, using camelina:

    Though I’m dubious of using alternative fuels for warlike purposes, perhaps this is the best way to develop the technology — partially shielded from the exigencies of the consumer marketplace.

  2. Dean, thanks for the comment. I was so interested in this topic my note taking suffered! I know the presenters did talk about how many gallons of fuel they were getting per dry ton, but I didn’t write it down. I don’t have any note from the conference indicating they talked about the cost conversion, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t just miss that part of the discussion. I am waiting to hear back from the U of I presenters, and when I do, I plan on getting some info about that. I’d like to see a how many BTU’s it take to convert a ton of dry wood waste, and how many BTU’s that wood waste actually produces.

Comments are closed.