SEATTLE In a move to speed the development of alternative fuels that don't consume food crops, oil giant Chevron and timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser are setting up a joint venture called Catchlight Energy.
The companies said Friday the venture will pursue new technologies for converting cellulose and lignin the compounds plants are made of into biofuels.
Catchlight will initially have offices at Weyerhaeuser's Federal Way, Wash., headquarters and at Chevron's San Ramon, Calif., home base. Chevron executive Michael Burnside will be the new venture's chief executive, and W. Densmore Hunter of Weyerhaeuser is chief technology officer.
Both firms will contribute technology and personnel. Catchlight may employ 30 to 40 people over time in its research and development effort, said Weyerhaeuser president Dan Fulton.
The venture will study "not only the technology, but also the commercial implications of creating a viable business there," Fulton said.
The creation of Catchlight formalizes a partnership Chevron and Weyerhaeuser entered in April 2007. At the time, many energy and agricultural companies began seeking to leverage their expertise into the fast-growing biofuel business.
Other Big Oil-Big Ag collaborations include ConocoPhillips' alliance with Tyson Foods to produce biofuel out of animal fat, also announced last April.
Critics point out that corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel can have a negative impact on the environment and on food prices.
But optimists say that cellulosic ethanol, still at an early development stage, could open the door to turning agricultural waste into energy.
"For renewable fuels to make a meaningful contribution we have to move beyond food-based feedstocks," said Mike Wirth, Chevron's vice president for global refining and marketing operations.
Chevron already mixes a significant amount of ethanol into its gasoline, and expects alternative fuels to become "more meaningful" contributors to the fuel mix, Wirth said.
The biofuels business could eventually be lucrative for Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest producers of pulp and timber in the world. "We think this is a natural evolution," Fulton said.
The hill Catchlight has to climb is steep, however. It must devise a sustainable business model "from the forest lands to the fuel," Wirth said. That involves harvesting timber, transporting it, breaking technological ground to process it into biofuel, and finding ways of transporting and distributing the fuel, he said.
The U.S. government, which has enacted an ambitious mandate for biofuel use, is also pinning its hopes on cellulose. In January, the Department of Energy said it would invest up to $114 million in four small cellulosic ethanol biorefineries.