Poplars considered as new source of biofuel

Poplars may soon be harvested as a new source of biofuels in the US Pacific Northwest.

The Advanced Hardwood Biofuels (AHB) Northwest Project is hoping to build the world's first biorefinery for trees.

Other trees often grown for harvest, such as Douglas fir and red cedar take 50 years to grow, while poplar will typically ready for harvest in just 3 years.

Tree farmer Joe Novak got the idea to grow poplars for biofuels after observing their fast growth rate and joined others on a tour of AHB's Stanwood tree farm.

The farm's 120,000 hybrid poplar trees are part of a $40 million federal grant for biofuel research.

It is one of four farms producing the trees in the states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to see how they fare in four different states.

According to Rick Gustafson, project leader for AHB Northwest, poplar is a good feedstock for producing fuel.

Although corn is five times cheaper, AHB believes trees are a better investment regionally as they grow more readily in the northwest.

AHB is also looking into using the tree farms to support waste treatment facilities by using sewage as a fertiliser.

‘For every region, there will be an optimal biomass,’ Gustafson says. ‘For us, it's poplar.’

AHB has already learned some lessons from their first harvest last year, including how to deal with natural threats such as deer, who eat the young poplar treetops, stunting vertical growth.

However, the project faces several challenges, as poplar fuel prices cannot compete with fossil fuels at the moment and investors are yet to be impressed by their potential.

But AHB leaders believe that the market will inevitably materialise, sooner or later.

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