By Max McCullough

"Distilling the Forest: A History of Liquid Biofuels in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” focuses on the production of methanol out of wood, the unintended consequences of doing so and what can be learned from what was once the largest wood distillery in the world—the Cliffs Dow Chemical Company in Marquette, Michigan.

“I’m interested in what we can learn from the past to inform the future on issues around sustainability,” said Professor Sarah Mittlefehldt, who has been awarded the Grace Magnaghi Upper Peninsula Research Grant for her project. “Most recently, I’ve been focused on the historical development of bioenergy production. There’s a lot of research on the engineering aspects and the technical parts of it, but I’m curious to know how different types of bioenergy have been incorporated into landscapes and how different communities have been affected by these technologies.”

Working replacing saw blades at the Dow Sawmill

Mittlefehldt began conducting preliminary research on the topic at the Central U.P. and NMU Archives over the summer. She analyzed papers donated from the former president of Cliffs Dow Chemical Company and other collections regarding forestry and the forest industry in the Upper Peninsula.

Students taking Mittlefehldt’s senior research class in the 2023 fall semester are helping to design and conduct oral history interviews with Marquette area residents who worked at or lived near the Cliffs Dow plant.

Last spring, Mittlefehldt was invited to participate in workshops by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO).

“The director of BETO stated that ‘Electric cars are here, and they’re here to stay. But there are parts of the transportation sector that are hard to electrify, such as jet fuel, ATV, and marine fuels because of battery limitations or other barriers.’ There are national conversations happening about the need for different types of biofuel development.

In August, Mittlefehldt organized and led a wood energy workshop on campus which brought together industry, leaders, policy makers, researchers, conservation officials, engineers, economic development experts, loggers and others to explore how forest fuels fit into the low carbon economy and how Michigan—and the Upper Peninsula, in particular—can help lead sustainable wood energy production.

Worker on the mill line at the Dow Mill 1949

“As a lot of people in Marquette know, the former Cliffs Dow facility was one of the city’s largest employers, but it was also very contaminated. I am interested in connecting this important local history to broader national and even global trends.”