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What You Can Do With Woodl
Article #127, January 2008
By Bill Cook

     Energy and transportation fuels are wood uses that have hit many headlines recently. These uses are not new, but there are newer technologies that can ramp-up the use of "green" fuels. While expanding the Michigan bioeconomy, we need to also protect and expand traditional wood uses, such as pulp, paper, lumber, panels, chemicals, etc. The wood-using industry is a major driver of Michigan's economy, and increased wood use can also promote forest health.

     The research and development world is buzzing with emerging technologies to utilize "cellulosic" biomass to replace petroleum. Hundreds of millions have been invested. In Michigan, wood is by far the most promising source of cellulose, a group of complex sugars. Currently, the highlighted product has been ethanol, but there are many other choices.

     Wood ethanol will soon be commercially produced by thermo-chemical processes and through employing biological organisms (like making whiskey). Bio-gases and biodiesel can serve as petroleum substitutes, or they can be further refined to make a range of other products. Gasification (e.g. Fischer-Tropsch) renders heat, syngas, and chemicals. Heat produced can be captured and put to work. Fast pyrolysis applies heat in a low oxygen environment that leaves oils, char, gases, chemicals, and, further on, transportation fuels. Fractionation disassembles wood into component cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignins. These can be converted to ethanol, petroleum alternatives, and many chemicals.

     Different processes can be used in combination with each other to more efficiently capture energy and design products. In many cases, it makes sense to build-in these technologies with existing manufacturing plants. NewPage Corporation and the Swedish company, Chemrec, may be able to strike a deal to produce high value products from the black liquor by-product of paper-making.

     Industry, government, and university research in a "triple helix" partnership has proven to be a successful model to advance bioeconomical initiatives and is actively pursued here in Michigan. In the U.P., a group will meet in February to explore needs, barriers, and roles with this idea in mind.

     Less speculatively and more traditionally, there are many opportunities to use more wood and less fossil fuel. A combined heat and power station could be the centerpiece of a biotechnology industrial complex. Using wood in boilers to produce both heat and power dramatically increases efficiency. A major utility project in northeastern Minnesota capitalized on this idea.

     Currently, wood-power is being considered for plants in Escanaba, Marquette, and L'Anse. It's already employed at pulp and paper mills and becoming increasingly common in several European countries.

     Actually, it's not a new idea but cheap coal has allowed us the luxury of producing only power, while sending the majority of the energy up the smoke stacks. Electric cars using coal-based electricity are not as eco-friendly as the marketers might have us believe.

     In terms of the bioeconomy sector of wood products, Michigan already uses wood for home heating and producing industrial heat and electricity. Recently, a program was launched in the U.P. to identify schools with older conventional boilers and assist them with the possible conversion to wood-using systems. Several schools have been doing this for years with substantial savings.

     The old outdoor home boiler has been a mainstay for years in rural areas. However, with air quality standards down the road, these systems need to be replaced with EPA compliant units. Improved models are steadily moving into the market.

     Several regional pellet manufacturers are helping to supply a growing demand. A number of projects are in the planning stages. Cleveland Cliffs has recently bought into a "biofuel cube" company.

     Michigan's storehouse of wood in the forest continues to grow each year. Sort of like a bank account, the principle continues to increase and interest exceeds expenses. The major threat is from private ownerships choking-off the supply.

     Wood has long been a heavily used natural resource in the United States. Wanton use of wood was largely responsible for building this country. Over the past century, we have learned how to sustainably manage these resources for not only our wood supply, but for all values associated with forests.

     Wood is an amazingly abundant and versatile Michigan natural resource. Stocks continue to increase. It's renewable, carbon-neutral, and domestic. Its use has the lowest environmental impact of any raw material. And, we have the infrastructure to make it work. If we choose to do so.

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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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