Bridging the valley of death

As a child, I learned about the “valley of the shadow of death” from the twenty-third Psalm. A similar image is conjured up by economists who talk about the “valley of death.” They mean that potentially deadly stage in the life of a business when production needs to be massively scaled up but investors aren’t willing to make that leap based only on pilot-scale results or because the economics of full-scale production are still iffy. One segment of the young biofuels industry is approaching that valley.

Here’s the background: part of the biofuel realm is called the “cellulosic” industry. It requires breaking down cellulose from woody material like trees and crop residue, then using the simple sugars that result to ferment alcohol that can be used as fuels for transportation.

One of the nation’s leading experts in cellulosic fuels research is Professor Norman Lewis of Washington State University. He understands that alternative fuels must be economical to be useful.

“At the end of the day, people want to go green, but not if it means they are red in their pockets,” Lewis told me recently.

Lewis and others working on his team have some ideas that may help bridge the gap from what’s doable in the lab to what could be economically viable in the real world. They are researching the use of genetically modified hybrid poplar trees to produce specialty chemicals that command a considerably higher price than biofuels. One such chemical is 2-phenylethanol. That’s a mouthful written down as a chemist does, but it’s a delightful noseful when you sniff it as I did, because it’s the active ingredient in the scent of roses. And the rosy chemical is valuable stuff, much more so than high-volume but low-cost fuel.

Lewis’ team is working to make poplars that are biochemical factories that produce rosy and high-value chemicals that could one day help the emerging cellulosic biofuel industry bridge the “valley of death” and make it to the promised land of economic profitability. Ultimately, fast-growing poplars might yield the highly valuable specialty chemicals as they grow, while the full-grown trees could later be broken down for cellulosic ethanol.

The fact that Lewis’ poplars are genetically engineered to produce the specialty chemicals adds to the complexities of developing his efforts commercially. But with a test plot of some 12,000 trees living on 26 miles of drip irrigation, Lewis is forging ahead.

“I believe genetically engineered plants are important for sustainability and coping with climate change,” Lewis said. “That means that some people think I’m going against nature, even with overwhelming scientific evidence of their safety.”

Lewis doesn’t seem to mind the criticism that sometimes comes with working on genetically engineered organisms.

“People in sports go from being loved to hated in an instant,” he said. “They just get used to it. I think researchers can be much too sensitive.”

With that bold spirit, Lewis’ innovative approach to bridging the valley of death for biofuels continues to move forward – smelling great as it goes.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.