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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Idaho

Process converts small trees to energy

Millions of scrawny, spindly trees choking Western forests could soon be harnessed as a clean source of renewable energy, according to researchers at the University of Washington.

A process has been developed to quickly convert even the smallest trees and branches into methanol, which is used as a power source for fuel cell technology, said Kristiina Vogt, professor at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. All of this can be done without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Although the idea sounds too good to be true, Vogt insists Northwest forests could soon become an important national energy source. Apart from the energy, the process would help create new jobs and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“You’re going to see it in a couple of years,” Vogt said. “I’m serious. The technology is already available. We’ve got this huge resource, it’s almost a no-brainer.”

Demonstration projects are planned for Republic and Forks, Wash., and on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

The heart of the process involves converting previously unusable trees into wood alcohol. People have created methanol for more than 350 years, Vogt said, but the new technology is vastly more efficient and converts wood into liquid “in a matter of minutes,” leaving behind only mineral-laden ash, which can be used to fertilize the forest. Because the process has not yet been patented, Vogt did not want to discuss details.

The methanol would then be used to power fuel cells, using a process developed by IdaTech, a company based in Bend, Ore. Fuel cells are essentially batteries that don’t run down. They involve no combustion or moving parts, but rely on harnessing energy from hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe. The byproduct of the reaction is pure water.

Fuel cells are well past the level of science fiction, said Gary Schmitz, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, of Golden, Colo. Although automobiles and even laptop computers are being powered by fuel cells – Toshiba recently developed a portable music player than can run for 20 hours on a half-teaspoon of methanol – significant hurdles remain before the technology becomes widely used. Finding the most efficient source of hydrogen is a major question, Schmitz said. Energy also is needed to separate the hydrogen from a carrier liquid, such as diesel, methanol or ethanol.

The National Renewable Energy Lab, which is one of the leaders in the Bush administration’s $350 million effort to create a “hydrogen economy,” is focusing its efforts on using solar and wind to power fuel cells, Schmitz said. “Everyone understands that the potential of hydrogen fuel cells is very great, yet we have a far way to go.”

Methanol from wood has been proved to be among the most efficient power sources for fuel cells, Vogt said. Most of the government’s attention, however, has been on converting Midwestern crops into ethanol, which is less efficient than methanol.

“The agricultural lobby has been so strong,” Vogt said. “They haven’t even been looking at wood.”

Western forests also are filled with an abundance of small trees that have little commercial value, said Michael Andreu, program coordinator for the University of Washington’s bioenergy program. Currently, landowners pay to have their forests thinned. Someday, they will earn money selling their unwanted saplings, Andreu said, during a presentation Monday at an international forestry convention in Edmonton, Alberta.

One ton of biomass – anything from tree trunks to pine needles – can be converted into 186 gallons of methanol, Andreu said. With 190 million acres of the West needing thinning, the amount of potential fuel is in the “billions of gallons,” he said. Extensive research is under way in Europe on transforming forest biomass into fuels. Sweden recently determined it could power 30 percent of its transportation system with bio-fuels.

“It’s an amazing resource that’s just standing out there,” Andreu said. “This can keep people working in the woods and rural economies viable.”

The University of Washington hopes to have demonstration projects under way in a year, Vogt said. Sustainable, environmentally friendly harvest techniques are key to the process, she added. Once the technology has been proved, Vogt envisions a future with many small biomass conversion plants and communities capable of generating their own power from the forest.

“It’s going to be very soon,” Vogt said. “The technology already exists. This is reality already. It’s not like this is a dream.”

Cost remains the biggest barrier, but rising oil prices and the increased instability in oil-supplying nations is changing that, said Edwin White, dean of research at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “What’s going to push it is national security.”

Fuel cell research is advancing more quickly than ever because of a renewed push by private industry, White said.

The viability of the forest industry depends on finding new uses for trees, especially as the global market becomes flooded with cheap timber from South America and southeast Asia, White said. Many people have difficulty believing spindly trees could someday play a critical role in the nation’s energy supply, White said, but few people 200 years ago would have believed the future value of the slippery black liquid that oozed freely out of Middle Eastern deserts.

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