Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who Needs Corn?

A woodland trail with a yellow road sign that says 'Energy Solutions Ahead'I just read another interesting article from NC State about their projects to develop alternate fuel sources to power America's transportation industry.

While they are working on other ethanol-based solutions, they are also looking at possible answers by extracting a glue-like substance called lignin from wood products. "Even though it's harder to work with, (Dr. Steve) Peretti (from NC State's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) likes lignin, calling it a 'higher-energy feedstock, almost like crude oil,' that is lower in oxygen. Less oxygen, he says, translates to higher energy value per gallon."

One of the really neat things about this project is that if they can get it to work on a large scale, there are a wide variety of sources for the raw materials needed for this process. It can be extracted from "Anything that has organic molecules in it – clean wood, dirty wood, forest thinnings, bark, waste paper, solid waste, even plastics." Using these sources will provide a serendipitous effect, by keeping these items from landfills and by helping to reduce the risk of wildfire.

In another article, Dr. Glenn Catts, a senior research associate at NC State who is working on a related project said, "Energy is certainly one thing that is not going away in terms of demand. The idea that we can generate energy in an alternative form while at the same time decreasing the risk of wild fires is the most compelling thing about this project."

This project will harvest debris from woodland areas for use as potential biomass. They are working with FECON, a company that manufactures mulching machines, to create a machine that can remove forest floor biomass in a cost-effective manner.

Dr. Joe Roise, professor of forestry at NC State said, "This is a resource people haven't thought of, and it's also a critical fire risk that needs to be removed.... What we have is not a product you grow, it's an existing resource that could support the energy needs of the South if you could convert it. So the real question is not how to grow biomass, but how to use the biomass that we already have." (Emphasis mine.)

On a side note, the project that Drs. Roise and Catts are working on could create some potential environmental problems, but they are optimistic that the effect will be similar to the outcome of controlled burns, benefiting many species by thinning out competing plants, and protecting housing in the urban interface.

Red NC State Block SSee what people can do when they actually put their minds to it? Granted there is a long way to go with this research and a lot of work to do, but this just goes to show that there are options. I am confident that as more research is done that we will be astounded at what is discovered.

Once again I am proud to be an alumnus of NC State. They keep proving, as their commercials claim, "We all go to NC State!"

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