Libby Site Emerges as Potential Player in Upstart Biofuel Industry

By Beacon Staff

A former lumber mill near Libby and other underutilized industrial sites throughout Northwest Montana could play a key role in the supply chain of a potential upstart biofuel industry.

An expansive five-year, $40 million research project is approaching the halfway point and officials are optimistic about the viability of creating an industry around turning waste wood into jet fuel and other valuable co-products like isobutanol.

“All together, it really seems like this is going to be a viable project,” said Tammi Laninga, a principal investigator with the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a broad collective of scientists and engineers from public universities and private industry in the Pacific Northwest spearheading the ambitious project.

“In terms of the infrastructure and the people’s social accessibility of products like this, I think the western Montana corridor certainly would be a great place to stand something up, even if it’s in intermediate stages.”

NARA’s expansive study is trying to determine if an industry could be established for wood-based biofuels and waste products in the four-state region of Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. The project, which is being funded through a research grant awarded by the U.S.

Department of Agriculture, has focused on Northwest Montana over the last year, seeking existing lumber sites that could be redeveloped for a new industry.

Project leaders presented their findings to stakeholders and others recently at NARA’s annual meeting in Corvallis.

“The (Western Montana corridor) is rich in all capital categories, making it a prime location to develop a biomass to biofuels supply chain,” NARA’s summary report reads.

The Kootenai Business Park in Libby and the former Smurfit-Stone pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown were listed as two recommended sites in NARA’s project. Both could become a depot or conversion site, which are two links in the proposed supply chain. The starting point for the supply chain is the forests where woody biomass is harvested and the harvest process entails collecting biomass and transferring it from the forest landing to trucks for hauling to a pre-processing depot.

In the final two years of research, project leaders will survey other regional assets, the end result could hinge on the current market price of petroleum jet fuel.

“The biojet price will improve with overall process refinements as our research progresses,” the report reads. “In addition, increases in the price of petroleum over time will make the biojet price more favorable. Still, to achieve economic viability, we must also focus on refining the supply chain efficiencies to achieve affordable feedstock at scale and to utilize existing industrial assets for production.”

For more information about NARA’s research or to read their annual summary report, visit www.nararenewables.org.