Biomass offers alternative visions of utopia

I’ve been having visions of utopia: clean cities, babies laughing in their mother’s arms, puppies chasing puffballs in a field. A world without pollution. A world without war over oil. And the answer that will bring about such utopian visions? Biomass.
Jim Kolar, a U of M grad student, picked biomass as the subject of his thesis. Kolar is also a pollution control specialist in the Compliance and Assistance Unit, Tanks and Emergency Response Section of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Kolar revealed that biomass is not some vision of the future, but very much a reality. Horror after horror story had me believing the current heat wave was due to El Ni¤o which had something to do with Greenhouses and C02 emissions and that we’d all be wearing gas masks before the millenium bug bites. Because of Jim, I now know that many people are working very hard to eradicate these nightmares; there are solutions.
What is biomass?
Biomass is simply plant matter. It only takes basic biology to understand that carbon dioxide from air and water combine through photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates, the building blocks of biomass. The sun’s energy is stored in the chemical bonds of biomass. If we burn biomass efficiently, oxygen in the air combines with carbon in plants to produce carbon dioxide and water. Carbon dioxide is available to produce new biomass and that’s why it is a renewable resource. Kolar and his biomass cohorts report biomass represents a tremendously large energy resource. The world is using only 7 percent of biomass production.
It’s all about sustainability. Fossil fuels — which are old biomass — contributes too much to the greenhouse effect and are nonrenewable. Biomass won’t replace fossil fuels completely. Sustainability based on renewable biomass reduces the need for fertilization or herbicides.
Most everyone knows about solar, wind and water, but corn stover? It’s the stuff left behind after corn is picked. It’s the main source of feedstock and also the main source of ethanol. Other feedstocks offer alternative sources as well, such as wood by-products, paper, hay, alfalfa, sugarcane and more. There’s millions of acres of this stuff just waiting to be converted. “If enzymes could be readily purchased by a biomass conversion entity at a cost-competitive price, it would be a large advancement for the industry,” says David Glassner, technical manager of the Biofuels Program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. Kolar adds, “Renewable fuels and in particular biomass have an important role to play not only in the U.S. but world-wide. Only change is permanent, and only a significant change by Congress (federal funding) can make a permanent and positive change in global warming (temperature increases) due to greenhouse gases. We’re the largest contributor and simply need to assume a more responsible role for our past and present actions.”
Is Congress listening?
Just last month, President Clinton named May 31 through June 6 as National Alternative Fuels Week. Mainly it’s a plea for minimizing America’s dependence on oil, especially foreign oil. Transportation is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and according to the president, 350,000 vehicles powered by ethanol, methanol, natural gas, propane, electricity and biodiesel are already on the market. Clinton’s proclamation claims alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) not only clean things up but also help create new jobs and businesses.
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 was a good start. There’s a provision for an ethanol tax incentive. The bill has continued support from such groups as the American Bioenergy Association, Biomass Energy Research Association and the National Corn Growers Association. Representative Ray LaHood (R-IL) sponsored the Cleaner Burning Fuels Act of 1998 (HR 2489), which extends the ethanol tax incentive through 2007. Even governors from 21 states formed the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition (GEC) in support of alternative fuels. At a recent Renewable Fuels Association conference, even the Central Intelligence Agency’s former director, James Woolsey, advocated strong support of the ethanol initiative. So the CIA is in on it, too.
In the future, farms cultivating high yield energy crops, such as trees and grasses, will significantly expand our supply of biomass. Traditional farms will become fully integrated systems for producing energy, chemicals, plastics, and more in addition to food. Biomass is a proven option for electricity generation. Biomass energy crops can be a profitable alternative for farmers, which will complement, not compete with, existing crops and thus provide an additional source of income for the agricultural industry.
It’s up to the general public to clamor for increased biomass use. Besides plant matter waste, there’s a big ball of fire full of energy just waiting to be harnessed. With wind and water as additional energy sources, visions of utopia might not be as fantastic as they sound.
Jerry Flattum is the Daily’s Editorial Editor.