Mini-Refinery Using Bug Trees Research in Interior West

These trees are closer to finding a home other than a burn pile. Along a Wyoming road in 2010.

These trees are closer to finding a home other than a burn pile. Along a Wyoming road in 2010.

Nice article by Bruce Finley here.. the Denver Post flashes and banners continue to be annoying, but I’m still glad they’re here.

Note that they are:
Using what carbon accounting folks would call “residues” that would be otherwise burned.

Moving the refineries around to take advantage of moving areas of dead trees. In Region 2, we used to talk about the “crows on bison carcass” model (biomimicry?) of moving small refineries and chippers around to each area as they had massive tree deaths. Many small things are just as good at getting rid of things as a few large things.

It’s interesting that Paustian felt the need to say “we’re not industry dupes”, given that the “industry” is nascent. And it sounds like EDF and TWS are there as well. His statement about energy plantations, while obvious to folks in the Interior West, is probably directed at the critique found in the scientific literature that 1) people “are projected to” use biofuel plantations, 2) which can be environmentally bad 3) therefore biofuels are environmentally bad. Note that projections are made up by specific people under the science blanket but essentially are assumptions about the future. Therefore the logic is essentially that “we think people might do bad things, therefore the technology is bad.” That’s why it makes sense not to believe scientific papers about a technology unless they are talking specifically about what you plan to do, where you plan to do it, and how you plan to do it.

Trucks will haul these refineries — wood-chippers and chemical conversion tubes — to locations near forests where dead trees are available. ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum, General Electric and Google are among the investors in what is described as a quest for cleaner, renewable fuel.

“Getting diseased wood out of forests more rapidly is going to reduce the risks of severe fire,” Vilsack said in an interview Tuesday.

The issue is whether timber across millions of acres of forests hit by a now-slowing beetle epidemic can be tapped in a way that minimizes erosion. The mini refineries are seen as viable alternatives to large biofuel plants, which could cost $500 million and require costly transport of timber.

Growing pressure to address climate change from fossil fuel greenhouse-gas emissions is, along with competition for oil, driving the Department of Defense and commercial airlines to develop new sources of fuel, Vilsack said.

“We’re interested in finding out ways we can use wood to produce energy,” he said. “We’re interested in determining ways we can help restore the health of our forests, reduce fire hazards,
Trucks will haul these refineries — wood-chippers and chemical conversion tubes — to locations near forests where dead trees are available. ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum, General Electric and Google are among the investors in what is described as a quest for cleaner, renewable fuel.

“Getting diseased wood out of forests more rapidly is going to reduce the risks of severe fire,” Vilsack said in an interview Tuesday.

The issue is whether timber across millions of acres of forests hit by a now-slowing beetle epidemic can be tapped in a way that minimizes erosion. The mini refineries are seen as viable alternatives to large biofuel plants, which could cost $500 million and require costly transport of timber.

Growing pressure to address climate change from fossil fuel greenhouse-gas emissions is, along with competition for oil, driving the Department of Defense and commercial airlines to develop new sources of fuel, Vilsack said.

“We’re interested in finding out ways we can use wood to produce energy,” he said. “We’re interested in determining ways we can help restore the health of our forests, reduce fire hazards, protect communities and create jobs in rural areas.”

CSU ecologist Keith Paustian, the project leader, said university scientists in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana will study refinery operations in forests filled with beetle-killed trees. Piles of down timber that otherwise would be burned may be used.

Paustian said they’ll focus on “what you would take, how you would take it, how you process it and how you would do it in a way that is environmentally responsible.

“On one hand, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels due to the issues with greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change. We’ve got to be able to use some kind of renewable source,” he said. While wind power could provide electricity for cars, “we cannot make electric airplanes. Is there wood that could be removed that would benefit the environment as well as be a feedstock for renewable fuels?”

University researchers are to work with Cool Planet, which moved its headquarters from California this year and is building a biofuel plantation in Louisiana to convert fast-growing wood into 10 million gallons of fuel. About 70 gallons of fuel can be made from a ton of wood.

Cool Planet’s process breaks down cellulose to fuel, wastewater and charcoal-like chips.

Cool Planet has raised $64 million and plans to manufacture the mini refineries in Colorado, company director Wes Bolsen said.

The fuel is said to be identical to petroleum material used in regular gasoline. For airlines, the conversion is different because airline fuel chemically is closer to kerosene.

“The problem with the beetle-kill is, it is episodic,” Paustian said. “We have a lot of wood now, but it’s not going to come back every year.”

Wilderness and roadless forests are not to be tapped. Project advisers include the Environmental Defense Fund and Wilderness Society.

“In Colorado and Wyoming and a lot of the northern Rockies, the conditions are such that there’s no way you’re going to make biofuel plantations. You cannot grow the biomass fast enough here,” Paustian said. “But our situation now is that we’ve got a lot of dead wood that is, essentially, almost an environmental problem.

“We’re not industry dupes. This is very much an open-minded research project. Let’s do the due diligence. That’s what universities are supposed to do — objective, nonpartisan research.”

11 Comments

  1. This idea could also be used for processing submerchantable green trees, cut in thinning projects, and currently (in California), being burned on the landings. Fuel costs make shipping them to biomass burning facilities (in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valley floor agricultural zones) cost-prohibitive. So, if we establish regional biomass collection points, connected with powerlines, we could utilize that biomass and reduce smoke emissions, at the same time. I’d like to see someone model the benefits of this process, ala global warming “doomers”.

  2. Doesn’t Vilsack know that “beetle-killed” timber and “diseased wood” are different things? i.e., hasn’t the top guy at USDA ever taken a forest pathology or plant pathology course? He’s welcome to sit in on mine (offered next fall). Sorry, pet peeve 🙂

    • One could say that “diseased wood” is trees that have fungi-related decay, due to insects like ambrosia beetles. That kind of wood is no longer suitable to make boards out of. Beetle-killed wood can still be useful, even when “blued”. No, I never took a forest pathology course, so I could be wrong about the specific beetle that brings in fungus, as it bores into the wood.

      • fair enough, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that’s what he meant. Bluestain fungus goes with bark beetle (MPB), actually both beetle and fungus fairly closely related to their Dutch elm disease counterparts… this is overshare I know… ambrosia beetles a little more distant relatives, actually weevils (which is still a type of beetle) and true fungus farmers. I guess I’m just bugged (no pun intended) by the top guy in USDA having degrees in neither agriculture nor forestry, guess it’s who you know and not what you know 🙂

  3. Can this be true? It’s hard to know, because CoolPlanet is a bit of a black box. The company won’t get into the details of its technology, which is understandable; that’s its competitive advantage. Cheiky also won’t say how much money he has raised, which is unusual; most startups are transparent about their financing. He was also a bit vague when asked about how much water will be needed to grow the feedstock crops.

    We’ve seen this story before . . . Good Earth Power.

    Where there is free government grant money hanging from trees (“The federal government is launching a $10 million, five-year project to tap overgrown and beetle-ravaged Western U.S. forests”), scam artists will pluck it. The Forest Service is unusually incompetent at separating the bona fide from the wild-eyed. Note that CoolPlanet has not a single commercial bio-refinery plant in operation anywhere on the planet. But, wait! They might be hard at work on one of the billions of other Earth-like planets.

  4. “We’re not industry dupes. This is very much an open-minded research project. Let’s do the due diligence. That’s what universities are supposed to do — objective, nonpartisan research.”

    Well, that’s always worth looking at a little more closely. Here, I couldn’t have said it better myself:

    “Critics of a so-called “second academic revolution” contend that the integration of a mission for economic development has transformed the traditional teaching and research university into what some (including numerous enthusiastic university administrators) call the “entrepreneurial university.”(155) The concept of the entrepreneurial university is in part an institutional reaction to ev-er-decreasing support for public higher education, but some observers worry that when professors in effect become entrepreneurs, whatever academic freedom and scientific authority they possess will be tar-nished. (156) As an expression of neoliberalism, i.e. a market-driven approach to social and economic policy-making, the intrusion of corporate culture into the academy has the potential effect of favoring commercialization and deregulation over civic discourse and scientific integrity. (157) The Federal Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which permits universities and other non-profit institutions to pursue ownership of inventions derived from publicly-funded research, has been criticized for privatizing the fruits of research that should be owned by the public, as partially evidenced by the enormous increase in university patenting and licensing activities since its enactment. (158) To the extent that a university’s interests overlap with corporate economic interests, conflicts of interest may arise that compromise the university’s independence to engage in academic re-search without regard to its commercial potential. (159) This situation may damage both the quality of the research, as well as public confidence in its legitimacy. (160) In the United States, the 106 publicly funded land-grant colleges and universities, many of which have a mission to focus on agricultural research and extension, are especially vulnerable to the corrosive effects of corporatization. Most university research is extramurally funded, and research faculty are under considerable pressure to bring in grant dollars to maintain their research programs. Both federal and industry funding support biotechnology research, either at the fundamental or applied level. Agricultural commodity growers’ groups contribute large amounts of money to university research, and some faculty are almost entirely dependent on commodity support for their programs. With few exceptions (e.g., organic growers’ groups, which contribute relatively small amounts to university research), commodity groups tend to be pro-biotechnology. The impression that university agricultural research is “bought and paid for” has become pervasive, and sometimes universities seem slow to recognize the problem.

    155. Henry Etzkowitz, The Evolution of the Entrepreneurial University, 1 INT’L J. TECH. & GLOBALISATION 64 (2004).
    156. See MARTIN KENNEY, BIOTECHNOLOGY: THE UNIVERSITY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX (1986)..
    157. See Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education: The University as a Democratic Public Sphere, 72 HARV. EDUC. REV. 425 (2002).
    158. Risa L. Lieberwitz, The Corporatization of Academic Research: Whose Interests Are Served?, 38 AKRON L. REV. 759, 764–67 (2005).
    159. Id. at 766–67.
    160. Id. at 767.

    (from: Guy R. Knudsen, Where’s the Beef? How Science Informs GMO Regulation and Litigation, 48 IDAHO L. REV. 225 (2012).)

    It’s not just a concern for research, either, for example many universities have variations of so-called policy & analysis programs, which are typically mandated to provide “objective data and analysis”, but which also are typically financially dependent on industry or partisan legislative suport, so that their white papers all too often, and fairly predictably, reflect those interests.

    • Guy, I would say that I have observed the transition in forest research (and ag) from user-oriented research (the old formula funding) to scientist generated research which is science of the scientists by the scientists for the scientists. Congress even questioned that when they established the Fund for Rural America.

      I do agree in ag, that if soybean folks and corn folks have a bunch of bucks that that USDA bucks should be targeted at the little guys (I used to go to meetings of stakeholders asking for plant breeding research). However, that is still stakeholder driven.

      Stakeholders driving research priorities and actions with public money seems too far out for our society, but it used to happen, at least with formula funds and the relationship between stakeholders and the forestry and ag deans.

      • I’m going to have to back Sharon on the real role of research. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a dandy thing, but application of that knowledge to improve the human condition is why science holds a high societal esteem. Or did…..
        It’s fine to study stuff, but academics being paid to study stuff usually have to come up with something the funders find useful. And there IS a bias there — the Duke et al foundations funding any number of carbon research lines aimed against fossil fuels, et cetera, ad nauseam.
        Then there is the idea of academic entreprenurialism. Most people go to college with the intent of learning a useful specialty for which they’ll be well paid. A lucky few get to go simply to pursue knowledge….but for most of us, economics is the real reason we go to skool.
        Aside from the warmunist drivel about carbon, the fact is these trees represent energy that could be captured and economically applied at not just zero net carbon, but at a minus when it comes to particulate and undesired chemical emissions. Biomass burners do a much better job of controlling the pollution that comes from the re-conversion of cellulose to its components.

  5. Here is a similar process that produces crude from wood. WY is primary wood supplier and Mr. Bill Gates just conditionally committed to invest $15Mil into the second phase – Plant is about 7 miles as the crow flies from my house.

    The whole alternate fuels business is pretty shaky because the technology hasn’t shaken out 🙁
    http://seekingalpha.com/article/1769502-bill-gates-invested-in-kior-and-nobody-cares
    When you look at his conditions, it will be pretty obvious why Gates is a billionaire.

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