Thursday, January 24, 2008

Seeing the Forest for the Fuel

On November 20th I read in the Science Times this article "Through Genetics, Tapping a Tree’s Potential as a Source of Energy" by Andrew Pollack. This article describes a cocktail of university departments, the Energy Department, and lumber companies working together to find ways of reducing lignin in trees through genetic engineering. Lignin, the chemical trees produce to keep them rigid and upright, gets in the way of producing ethanol from wood pulp. It also slows the process of making paper from wood pulp.

Its another attempt for an agricultural business to get into the oh, so lucrative fuel business. I do not know the science on this, but my suspicion is that trees won't make the most efficient ethanol once you have to farm it. But the biggest problem here is the genetic engineering of trees to contain less lignin. Unlike farm crops, which are generally annual and often do not survive without the farmers' helping hand, trees will survive and pollinate other wild trees with their genetically altered pollen. In not so many years, this trait could spread to much of the new wild offspring in the forest. Seems like a bad idea-especially if we are risking our forests for car fuel. It appears to me that we are in a period of boondoggling in the absence of any true leadership on our car fuel problems. In this period we are going to see a lot of companies looking to get rich off the boondoggle. Lets tell our congressmen and women we don't want to power our cars with trees. The Energy Department should get out of the forest.

Andrew Hancock for The New York Times

Young poplars in a laboratory at Purdue University.

Here's another article about the use of trees for fuel. It seems to have some strange statements,like this one: "Forests can provide renewable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil,” Kimbell said. “This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere while diminishing our dependence on foreign fuel sources." I'm not sure how burning wood or anything made from wood reduces CO2, but thats a sound bite for you.

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