New Technologies for
an Old Resource
Article #118, April 2007
By Bill Cook
New Technologies for an Old Resource
Well, that's anything that's living or has recently been living. Woody biomass
is the material from trees, for the most part. Humans have used woody biomass
for centuries, in a wide variety of ways. We usually just call it wood. It is
an essential raw material to the success of any civilization.
So, what's the fuss?
always, technology can change the way we use raw materials and can open doors
in ways that were impossible years ago. In the case of woody biomass, it means
getting creative with a resource that has only just begun to be tapped. A decade
past, who thought our pocket could carry a device that would serve as telephone,
camera, music player, and connect to something called the "Internet?"
of woody biomass conversion plants are opening all over North America that use
wood to produce ethanol, bio-oil, electricity, chemicals, and a variety of other
value-added materials that can feed other industries, including the auto industry.
It's much more than the simple back yard wood-burning furnace, or even the newer
can be treated with a variety of emerging technologies to produce an amazing
array of products. Microbes can digest wood to produce transportation fuels.
Energy can be applied to make oils and building heat. With a gasifier, traditional
co-generation plants can double their efficiency. In an oxygen-free environment,
material can be produced that might be a compatible feedstock for coal-fired
electric plants. The material is hydrophobic, so it might also be used to manufacture
waterproof energy pellets. Uses for myriads of chemicals and by-products can
be mind-boggling. The move to a more "bio-based" economy has picked
up considerable speed.
interested? For one, investors have plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into
research, development, and production. Major universities are cranking out all
sorts of research into experimental and production projects. The U.S. Department
of Energy just handed-out $385 million to a handful of companies with promising
ideas. Conferences have popped up like daisies in the summer.
the interest? For one, the price of petroleum has reached a new plateau and
is not likely to drop, like it did in the 1970s and 1980s. China, India, and
Indonesia will see to that. Secondly, petroleum is a non-renewable resource.
While currents stocks are arguably adequate, that won't last forever, and scarcity
will only fuel upward price trends. Third, the possibilities in using renewable
resources make much more sense, in the long-run, for many reasons, some of them
and development in this arena has been on-going for decades. Most projects have
not received much attention until recently. The lime-light has new targets.
Innovation seems to be coming out of the woodwork, if you'll excuse the pun.
this part of the world, wood is the natural resource of choice. The northern
Lake States lie in one of the largest wood baskets of the world and they are
strategically located to serve 30 or 40 million people. We can't grow a lot
of corn, but we can grow trees. And, most of our trees remain on the backburner.
woodlands currently have low commercial value. Certain species now have little
market, such as balsam poplar, but that could change. Brush lands can provide
woody biomass. Who ever thought of harvesting tag alder? Current non-commercial
thinnings, which are seldom done, might now become commercial and go a long
way to improving the quality and health of many forests. On thousands of acres
of abandoned farmland, we could grow energy plantations, which have considerably
more eco-friendly footprints than agricultural crops.
way forests are managed can easily evolve to incorporate "biomass"
harvests. Traditional harvesting will continue because those products will likely
retain the highest dollar values and we all continue to demand things such as
dimension lumber, paper, and furniture. However, the products that a logger
can manufacture could increase. More markets mean better forestry, forest management,
and a higher quality environment. New market development is underway.
Currently, we have a vital wood-using industry that makes substantial positive contributions to life in the rural north. These are industries and jobs that we want to keep. However, only a portion of the forest resource is used by these industries. Michigan forest volumes continue to climb at rates that exceed those of most states. We have green gold out there.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at email@example.com or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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