Bridging The Valley of Death

Jul 19, 2014

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, aka the "Rock Doc."
Credit Washington State University

A team of scientists at Washington State University is working to develop new sources for chemicals that might aid in the development of biofuel startups.  One avenue of research: poplars.  Dr. Kirsten Peters, the “Rock Doc,” takes a look.

When I was a child, I learned about the “valley of the shadow of death” from the twenty-third Psalm. 

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

Something like that image is conjured up by economists who talk about the “valley of death.” From their point of view, the valley of death is that potentially deadly phase 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 when the economics of full-scale production are still unclear.

Part of the biofuel industry is called the “cellulosic” biofuel industry. The idea behind the work is to break down cellulose from woody material like crop residue and trees, and then use 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 economic 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 using 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 it’s 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 high-priced chemicals that could one day help the struggling 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 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 plunging ahead. 

“I believe genetically engineered plants are important for sustainability and coping with climate change,” Lewis said. “I’m in the future. 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 spirit, Lewis’ approach to bridging the valley of death for biofuels continues to move forward.   

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.