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New Technologies for an Old Resource
Article #118, April 2007
By Bill Cook

New Technologies for an Old Resource

     Biomass. 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?

     As 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?"

     Dozens 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 pellet furnaces.

     Wood 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.

     Who's 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.

     Why 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 quite obvious.

     Research 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.

     In 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.

     Many 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.

     The 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 cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared 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:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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