Friday, November 7, 2008

Energy, Biofuels, the forest and our economy

Truly this is a mouthful, but we endear our forests, so we pay attention to what is happening as these things interlink. We must have transportation and it must be at an affordable price for us to exist. Under extreme financial pressure, diminishing available consumables, and higher costs of transportation, our country is searching for solutions. These are all connected, and I hope we are all paying attention.

So here we are, talking about this relative to our East Texas forests. Now there is a trend to seek fuel sources using natural and unnatural biodegradable techniques. Major oil companies are funding research into these technologies. It all started with corn. We all know that corn will produce alcohol. Heaven knows, there has been enough movies about illegal liqueur-running in the back woods for decades. Production of alcohol in the backwoods is a well known fact. Corn whiskey is relatively easy to make. Now our cars are using it for fuel. 10% of what we get at the pump is distilled corn "whiskey" (i.e., ethanol)! However, we do have problems with this strategy. We burn food to reduce the amount of petroleum that we consume! It is really diluted gasoline that we burn in our cars today. In turn, the prices of a major food staple has risen considerably. So the strategy of adding ethanol to gasoline is having a negative economic response. Even those people who can't afford to own automobiles are negatively affected by this oil conservation strategy. This is now a recognized fact, and many businesses are scrambling for their piece of a future change to alternate biofuel sources.

They want to use our forests! We have many components for fuel in our forests. After all, we used to get our energy from there. We would burn wood, primarily cellulose. Put fire to wood and it generates heat, a form of energy. The answer seems not to be in fire since it is so inefficient. Instead, researchers are looking into biodegrading methods, that is, let the natural bacterial decay that occurs every day in the forest be our means to producing energy.

Do you have a compost pile? I do. I take the fallen leaves of the trees, crush them to some extent and put them in a compost bin. The bin is a heavy wire mesh that I can easily empty and turn over every month. I stimulate decomposition by adding egg shells, raw potato skins, raw green leaf leftovers, coffee and tea bags. The composition occurs because we have bacteria that will break these things down. That process generates heat and the process then accelerates. Wood also will break down but at a much slower pace than the leaves. Basically, what remains after one year of a compost pile, is the cellulose and nutrients for plants that result from the breakdown. I point this out because it is what happens in the forest. Various carbon gases and liquids are produced in the process.

Companies are now seeking ways to harness these by-products and even more. They want to find ways to use the cellulose, the backbone of the forest, to produce fuel. To do that, one must find organisms that will break down cellulose into carbon chains. Yes, even alcohol is a carbon chain. When it burns, water and carbon dioxide are produced as by-products. So you see, the environment is affected as well. When you burn something, you are feeding the global warming cycle from gas emissions into the environment. Of course the forest takes a substantial amount of the CO2 and produces oxygen through photo genesis. It also produces some carbon-chain liquids and gases, especially on the forest floor where the leaves decay. Where is all of this heading?

Let's say that our science is successful. Our universities come up with a viable solution to this approach. Then the forest becomes another money producing resource. Its cellulose is valuable. What's more, in the science labs, microbes are synthesized as a means to break down cellulose. So the question is asked, how would these new microbes be controlled as to not harm our forests? Could they make our forests sick? Possibly, but not likely since the targeted cellulose would be dead, not living matter. The more likely problem would be the enemy of the forest - humans. I call us the enemy because when it comes to money, we as a race have destroyed forests for thousands of years. Just think, 1500 years or so after the Ottoman Empire, there remains a large amount of land without trees where there were forests before. Why? Because the Turks paid a bounty for trees which protected tax evaders. To get those taxes, the forests had to be destroyed (in their eyes). We can look at the Amazon jungles today to see what happens to forests given economic reason.

Our economy is severely stressed. We need alternate fuel sources. Is this a good way to spend our money? Will we be opening up our forests to tree cutting for fuel? Will we be turning our forests into tree farms so that we can have gasoline? I surely hope not!!!!! Let's think about the environment, retaining the natural forests and seeking alternate fuel sources in the wind, the ocean and the sun, not our forests nor our crops.

References -

  1. Forbes article - Beaker Fuel November 2008