Ethanol From Wood  

Posted by Big Gav

Extracting ethanol from corn may not be worth the effort, but the Christian Science Monitor has an article out investigating the viability of producing ethanol from paper mill waste.

Forget corn processing. Don't wait for switch grass. The real key to producing enough ethanol for America's cars and trucks this century is wood.

That's the contention of researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY). By revamping the way paper is made, they've found an economical way to extract important energy-rich sugars from the trees and then convert these sugars into ethanol, a gasoline additive, and other useful chemicals.

It's a process the researchers call a biorefinery. Installed at the nation's paper mills, biorefineries could produce 2.4 billion gallons of ethanol a year, they estimate, or 80 percent of the nation's projected need this year.

"We know our sources of fossil fuel aren't going to last forever," says Thomas Amidon, a professor at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry. "Biorefineries allow us to substitute a sustainable energy source: wood."

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See my post entitled, Like Easter Island, only with cars. That's where we're headed if we follow these nuts.

Kurt's point is well made - expanding the felling of trees in order to produce biofuel isn't a solution to anything.

However, given that the process mentioned is using waste from paper mills (and therefore the trees have already been chopped down) it would seem we are at least using these trees more efficiently.

If the timber being used is from plantations rather than old growth forests, then it would seem that the cycle is carbon neutral.

I guess my view is that we need to become less oil dependent (and that is going to be forced on us anyway), and making our economies much more energy efficient is the most important goal - but biofuels are likely to be part of the solution for meeting our energy needs in future, and we should be trying to create and use these in the most efficient manner possible.

I agree with Big Gav that if we are simply using waste, then making biofuels from the waste may represent a wise choice. Two points are worth making: 1) Do we really want to be chopping down as many trees as we do now instead of say, using hemp fibers to make paper? I don't think it's wise to encourage such wasteful processes by giving them a pass because they produce a waste stream that can be partly used for some other purpose. 2) If the demand for wood-based biofuels becomes great enough, it is foreseeable that those making money off them will use up the waste available and start using trees directly as discussed in my post. Do you think they'll stop at trees grown only on plantations? Also, I'm skeptical that tree plantations are really sustainable.

In theory, I'm not opposed to biofuels. But, when you get down to actual practices, there are many, many problems.

I do agree that solutions to an energy transition will probably be multifaceted. In other words, no silver bullet. But, the mentality which we've nutured in the industrial age would have to change. Otherwise, some enterprising corporations will simply exploit every profitable resource to exhaustion just as they have in the past.

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