The cost of oil is topping out near 70 dollars a barrel and the nation is sending billions of dollars to unstable foreign countries to get it.
in mind, many Americans have begun to think about biofuels from domestic crops. Biofuels such as corn ethanol and soy diesel are the most popular right now. But researchers are looking into plants that don’t require the fertilizers and pesticides those crops need. The GLRC’s Richard Annal reports on one crop that could make ethanol much more efficiently:
The cost of oil is topping out near $70 a barrel and the nation is sending billions of dollars to unstable foreign countries to get it. With that in mind many Americans have begun to think about biofuels from domestic crops. Biofuels such as corn ethanol and soy diesel are the most popular right now, but researchers are looking into plants that don’t require the fertilizers and pesticides those crops need. The GLRC’s Richard Annal reports on one crop that could make ethanol much more efficiently:
(sound of pouring liquid)
Researcher Timothy Volk is showing me some liquid that is on its way to becoming biofuel.
“So what comes out of this is a brown liquid.”
This murky brownish substance contains sugars that have been extracted from wood chips. Separating sugars from organic materials is an essential part in the production of the biofuel ethanol, and a new method being developed at the School might revolutionize that process. This lab is at the School of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, part of the State University of New York system. Everybody just calls the school ESF. What makes the process at ESF different is the use of water instead of harsh chemicals as a means of extracting sugar and the use of wood from a type of willow as stock material.
The extracted sugars are then fermented and used to produce ethanol. Mix 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline and you’ve got E-85. Several models of cars can burn E-85. It burns cleaner than petroleum based products, and reduces the dependence on foreign oils.
ESF’s Timothy Volk says this method differs from others being used, creates several by- products, and leaves very little waste material.
“What’s left over still looks like a wood chip. That could go to the paper industry, and you could still make paper out of it, or you could use that wood chip to produce renewable heat and power. One of the beauties of this is that from a ton of hard wood chips from the forest or willow or where ever it comes from you’re making multiple products and there’s not a lot left.”
For stock material ESF researchers are experimenting with the use of the willow shrub tree. This plant is native and grows to over ten feet tall. The researchers say willow beats corn hands down. You have to burn fuel to plant corn every year. Corn requires fossil fuel-based fertilizers, and you only use the corn kernels rather than the whole plant to produce ethanol.
Jim Nokas is one of the lead researchers on the project. He sees the willow shrub as much more commercially viable than corn-based production.
“The best calculations we have for every unit of energy put into this process you get anywhere from 11 to 15 units of energy out. Compared to the best data available for corn, for every unit of energy put in, one would obtain 1.67 units of energy out.”
In other words, producing ethanol from willow is about ten times more efficient than using corn.
Tom Linberg is a commissioner with the New York State Department of Agriculture. Linberg says he’s excited by the prospect of wood-based ethanol production, and sees growing a low maintenance crop like willow as a way for farmers to earn extra cash.
“I think it’s something that could provide an option for a lot of farmers or land owners to use vacant land. Try and get some income off of it whereas they might otherwise not be getting income off the land. It’s a fairly low impact crop. You know, you plant it once and you don’t really need to do anything else with it, and this is something they could have on the side. Brings in some extra income and, again, helps keep that land productive.”
Willow can be harvested 6 to 7 times before replanting is necessary. It has a year long growing and harvesting season, and provides high yields. With about 2 million acres of dormant farmland in New York alone that could be dedicated to willow production, Volk believes growing willow for ethanol would have a positive effect on the local economy that buying foreign oil cannot offer.
“The real benefit here then is we build them here and it’s locally produced material, so you buy it from the land owners, or the farmers that are producing willow, the people that own wood lots. You buy all that material locally from the local community. You produce the ethanol and hopefully then we are using it locally in the community, and instead of sending energy dollars out of the state we cycle them around the local community and get lots of benefits associated with them.”
The researchers say the willow-to-ethanol process will be ready for commercial application within two years, and if it proves commercially viable the timing couldn’t be better. With ethanol plants being built across the nation, the wood method could become an efficient alternative to corn-based production in many states.
For the GLRC, I’m Richard Annal.