Turning biomass â€“ things like wood, plants or nearly any material that has living, or organic, matter in it â€“ into fuel is one promising way of making the United States less dependent on foreign oil.
But while biomass conversion holds a great deal of potential for providing fuel in the 21st century, there are a number of complexities that must be dealt with and overcome before we end our reliance on petroleum from the Middle East and other volatile areas of the world, says North Carolina State University’s Dr. Steve Kelley.
A “one size fits all” approach clearly won’t work, he says.
Kelley, professor and department head in the Department of Wood and Paper Science, discussed the multidimensional complexities behind converting biomass to fuel during his presentation, titled “Assessment of Technology Advancement in the Manufacturing of Ligno-Cellulosic Ethanol,” in a symposium on “Biofuels from Forest-Based Biomass” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Boston from 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 18.
“We’re going to look at a number of technologies that can turn biomass into fuel and the interplay between technologies and other resources you need â€“ land, water, public perception â€“ to do it,” Kelley said. “What works well in one environment might not work in another. A technology that works well for agricultural crops might not be best for soft wood. So we really need to grasp the advantages and disadvantages of biomass-to-fuel tools and the different methods used.”
Kelley pointed to four arguments that can be made in favor of forest biomass conversion: reducing imports of foreign oil; reducing the effects of climate change caused by manufacturing energy from oil and coal; providing economic development for rural areas that have biomass resources and skills but have been seemingly left behind in the 21st century economy; and helping a North American wood and paper industry that has been under duress from foreign competition.
While all these arguments are seemingly beneficial to society, Kelley says being able to turn a profit while you produce fuel from biomass is another matter entirely.
“We can’t seem to find a consensus on how to make money with biomass,” he said. “Also, the question arises of who gets the money â€“ the people with the resource or the people who produce the fuel. We need to figure out how to spread the benefit out.”
Using biomass for power is getting a particularly long look in a state like North Carolina, Kelley says, because the state has no petroleum resources, no oil wells and no oil refineries. It imports energy to the tune of about $16 billion per year, estimates show.
“Alternatives to petroleum all have advantages and disadvantages, even things like wind, photovoltaic and nuclear power,” Kelley says. “This symposium is important for straightforward, honest discussion about current technical limitations of the tools and methods that create fuel from biomass.”
– kulikowski –
Note to editors: The presentation abstract follows.
“Assessment of Technology Advancement in the Manufacturing of Ligno-Cellulosic Ethanol”
Author: Dr. Steve Kelley, North Carolina State University
Presented: Feb. 18, 2008, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston
Abstract: With growing concerns over increasing fuel prices, greenhouse gas emissions and the national security issues surrounding reliance on imported oils there is an increasing interest in technologies that allow for sustainable production of fuels from domestic biomass resources. There are a wide variety of technologies that can be used to convert lignocellulosic biomass into liquid fuels, including fermentation of sugars, biomass pyrolysis, and production of liquid fuels from biomass derived syngas. Currently the forest products industry has a well-developed manufacturing infrastructure, and well-established biomass collection protocols that could be used to help launch the production of biofuels and bioenergy. This talk will highlight the potential impact for bioenergy and the technical challenges that must be overcome for widespread deployment.