Thursday, June 22, 2006
Ethanomania dreams spreads to biowaste
[Apparently we've put in a new kind of soil that doesn't need tilth renewal all over America.]
New Fuel Source Grows on the Prairie
With Oil Prices Up, Biomass Looks More Feasible
By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006; A01
IMPERIAL, Neb. -- Just outside this town in the middle of the great American prairie, 37 miles from the nearest traffic light, stands a huge pile of cornstalks and leaves. It looks like a 35-foot mountain of yard trash, yet black cables snake into the pile, attached to sensors that monitor its vital statistics by the minute.
If ambitious plans taking shape in Washington and in state capitals come to fruition, this pile of stalks and many more like it will become the oil wells of the 21st century. The idea is to run the nation's transportation system largely on alcohol produced from bulk plant material, weaning America from foreign oil and the risks that go with it, including wars, global warming and terrorism.
Farmers have pushed for years to get more people using gasoline mixed with ethanol made from corn kernels, but so far such ethanol has replaced only about 3 percent of the nation's gasoline, and by most estimates, the country would never be able to grow enough corn to replace more than 10 or 12 percent of its fuel supply.
Now many scientists -- and eager Silicon Valley venture capitalists -- are focusing on a new type of ethanol made from agricultural wastes and other plant residues, a potentially vast supply of material known as biomass. . . .
"If you think we're heading towards a future where oil prices are going to stay relatively high, $50-plus a barrel, then the energy cost delivered in plant biomass is much, much less than the energy cost delivered in oil," said Bruce E. Dale, head of the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University. "I'm completely convinced that this industry is going to happen on economic grounds alone. The demand for liquid fuels is so high and rising that we're going to convert an awful lot of stuff to liquid fuels."
. . .
Two former directors of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey and John M. Deutch, have become advocates of biomass as a fuel source. The basic insight, Woolsey said in an interview, is to realize that global warming, the geopolitics of oil, and warfare in the Persian Gulf are not separate problems -- they are aspects of a single problem, the West's dependence on oil. Woolsey throws fundamentalist Muslim terrorism into the mix, noting that funds for the schools that turn out Islamic radicals come from Persian Gulf states enriched by oil money. "This is the only war the U.S. has ever fought where we pay for both sides," Woolsey said. . . .
For 30 years, some scientists have believed the ultimate feedstock for transportation fuel would be something called cellulose--for the elementary reason that it is the most abundant organic molecule on the planet.
Cellulose, like starch, is made up of glucose molecules, but packed so tightly they're extremely hard to break apart. Plants use cellulose chiefly as a structural material -- it helps trees and grasses stand upright. If efficient ways were developed to break open the molecules, a wide variety of agricultural wastes or specially planted energy crops could feed the new industry.
Scientific progress has been slow, but now it seems to be accelerating. Enzymes needed for the process used to cost more than $5 per gallon of ethanol, but biotechnology companies, under government research contracts, have reduced that to 30 cents per gallon. . . .
Now a new set of questions is dawning in farmhouses across the land. If the industry takes off, what would be the practical realities of gathering hundreds of millions of tons of bulk material to feed the ethanol factories of the new age? . . .