To make biofuel production cost-effective, scientists seek profit-generating byproducts

Can the ubiquitous evergreen trees and abundant crops of the Pacific Northwest cut the United States’ reliance on petroleum? Maybe—if questions of economic viability can be answered. Xiao Zhang, a chemical engineer at WSU Tri-Cities, aims to answer those questions with a “yes.”

While converting lignocellulosic biomass (that is, woody plant matter) to biofuel is a promising concept, commercial implementation on a large scale isn’t yet economically viable. To drive down costs, lignocellulosic biomass must be used in multiple products. Biofuel alone isn’t enough.

Dr. Zhang seeks chemical pathways to generate value-added byproducts in the course of biofuel production. Those byproducts could fill the profitability gap.

Funded by the Sun Grant Program Western Region, a program of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Dr. Zhang’s team is exploring ways to produce plant-based phenolic compounds that could replace petroleum-based phenol in paint, printer ink, adhesives, and rubber. Where biofuel production is not cost-effective, these valuable co-products could pick up the slack.

In addition, with a National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award, Dr. Zhang and his collaborators seek a new chemical pathway that will simultaneously turn biomass lignin into both biofuel and chemicals used for carbon fiber production.

By using Douglas fir, the predominant softwood in the Pacific Northwest region, and wheat straw, which can be grown locally in the Palouse region, Dr. Zhang’s research has the potential to help farmers with economic diversification—and pick the biomass industry up by its bootstraps.