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Better Biofuels, Desert Wheat

Posted by | October 12, 2011

Grant Primes Research Engines for Better Biofuels

Washington State University has received a five-year, $40 million grant to help develop alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals. The award was announced Sept. 28 by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Overcoming obstacles that prevent wood-based jet fuel and petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable is the focus of the project. Led by WSU, it brings together a consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories, and private industry. The consortium is called the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA).

Vilsack announced that the University of Washington will receive a similar grant. Approximately two-thirds of the funding of these grants is directed to research, with the remainder targeted to education, outreach and public awareness. “This is an opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and drive economic development in rural communities across America by building the framework for a competitively priced, American-made biofuels industry,” Vilsack said. “Public-private partnerships like these will drive our nation to develop a national biofuels economy that continues to help us grow and out-compete the rest of the world while moving our nation toward a clean energy economy.”

Wood waste could become an important source of aviation biofuel.
Wood waste could become an important source of aviation biofuel.

The WSU grant aims to address the need for a domestic biofuel alternative for U.S. commercial and military air fleets. NARA researchers envision developing a viable, aviation fuel industry using wood and wood waste in the Pacific Northwest based on the region’s oil refining and distribution assets.

The project will focus on increasing the profitability of wood-based fuels through development of high-value, bio-based co-products to replace petrochemicals that are used in products such as plastics. A major objective will be to better understand and use wood lignin, a glue-like material constituting up to about 30 percent of some woods. Lignin is often considered to be one of the key issues adversely affecting the economic viability of wood-derived plant chemical products.

“With some new strategies coupled with the diversity of skills represented on the NARA team, we believe we can begin to resolve the issues that have prevented wood-based biofuels and other petrochemical substitutes from being economically viable,” said Norman G. Lewis, Regents Professor and director of WSU’s Institute for Biological Chemistry. “If we are successful, the potential to begin to replace the natural resources jobs lost in the region over the past several years is very high.”

Lewis and Michael P. Wolcott, LP Distinguished Professor of Wood Materials and director of WSU’s Institute for Sustainable Design, will lead NARA. “To truly realize a new industry, we must begin considering all of the factors that make any major industry run successfully,’’ said Wolcott. “One aspect of NARA’s strength lies in the integration of products, market and workforce development, all with an eye toward the success of the existing forest industry and its relationship with communities and the environment.”

–Kathy Barnard and Tina Hilding

More information about NARA, its work and its partners is available at

A longer version of this story is available online at

Breeding Better Wheat

I spent this past summer trudging through six-mile treks each weekend with two good friends. We walked along the edge of wheat fields outside of town. (My friends and I qualify as middle-aged ladies, so the walks counted as significant exercise. Sad but true.)

Wheat harvest on the Palouse.
Wheat harvest on the Palouse.

One of the interesting things about the walks was simply observing the growth and ripening of the wheat fields by which we passed. We depend on wheat for bread, pasta, animal feed, noodles and–perhaps most importantly–fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. Watching a whole field of wheat grow up, turn from green to gold, and finally be harvested is a magical production that never grows old, at least for us hayseeds.

In the old days wheat grew tall, some of it to a height of six feet. But around the time I was born, wheat researchers launched the “Green Revolution” that created wheat with much shorter stature. That was important because it meant farmers could pour on as much fertilizer and water as they were able without leading to wheat so tall it would topple over. In total, the Green Revolution roughly doubled the amount of wheat available worldwide–quite an accomplishment, but one of the truly astounding aspects of technical progress to which we adapt so quickly we soon take it for granted.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk with a wheat breeder who knows the history of the Green Revolution and who is immersed in the next wave of research promising new progress for wheat production. Professor Kulvinder Gill is an ag researcher who made time to help this rockhead learn about both what the Green Revolution accomplished and one unfortunate side effect it may have introduced into many strains of wheat.

“We believe that what reduced the height of the wheat also compromised a plant hormone called gibberellic acid (GA for short),” Gill told me. “One way of putting it is that we want a different way of dwarfing the wheat plant that leaves the GA alone.”

One of the great challenges many wheat farmers face is growing wheat where rain is scarce. (Think of the Dakotas or west Texas. My eyes smart from the dust just cogitating on what a July afternoon there can be like.) About 85 percent of American wheat comes from low rainfall areas–places where what’s called “desert wheat” would be a big help to farmers and therefore to all of us whom farmers feed.

One way to help wheat grow well in low-rainfall areas is to plant it two to three times deeper than you would elsewhere. Water is indeed down at that level in the soil, but of course if you plant at depth it means the little seedlings have to have the “oomph” to grow to the surface and emerge. “We also want a big root system for dry conditions,” Gill told me. “More roots so that each wheat plant draws in more moisture.”

Beyond that, it’s good to have roots that go downward, rather than spread laterally. Competing with a neighboring plant by having the first wheat plant send its roots laterally into a neighboring plant’s domain doesn’t do either of them any good. So downward-growing roots are what Gill and his colleagues hope to promote.

There’s a lot of painstaking work involved in breeding wheat. Researcher and their assistants use small scalpels to remove part of the reproductive organs on heads of wheat, then wait and finally cross-fertilize them with another strain. The offspring of wheat produced this way has to be raised for four or five succeeding generations in order for it to breed true. Even in greenhouses where wheat will grow year round, that involves a couple of years in itself.

“But I’m sure that in 5 to 10 years we’ll have ‘desert wheat’ that’s ready to be planted by farmers,” Gill told me. In many parts of both the U.S. and the developing world, wheat that can flourish with little rain would be most welcome. A lot more than cinnamon rolls are at stake.

–Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Learn more about Gill’s research at

If you aren’t reading the Rock Doc in your local paper, ask for her — or check out Dr. Peter’s weekly column online at or on Twitter @RockDocWSU.