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How switchgrass and wood chips could run a car

Let's talk about pyrolysis.

No? Okay, how about cellositic ethanol?

Wait a minute. Aren't you the same guy who ten years ago didn't want to talk about ethanol or biodiesel? Yeah, I remember you. I think you should pay attention this time.

Pyrolysis is formally defined as chemical decomposition of organic materials by heating in the absence of oxygen or any other reagents.

Don't get what that means? Sure you do. Think charcoal.

Charcoal, just to remind you, is wood that is slowly heated with access to the air kept very limited. Charcoal has been made for over a thousand years and it has made much of modern civilization possible. Without charcoal, we'd have no high quality iron and we'd have taken none of the first baby steps toward the industrial revolution.

We're taking some more baby steps, steps that can move us toward another revolution.

We're not talking just wood here - we're talking about almost any biomass and we're not talking about a process that takes days. This happens fast.

Really fast.

Biomass is heated to over 900 degrees F for only a second. It turns into agas and then it is quickly cooled. What results is a bio-oil, sort of like a low-grade fuel oil. The quality leaves a little to be desired, (it's mildly acidic and somewhat unstable) but the cost is less than either gasoline or Number 2 fuel oil. One hundred pounds of bio-mass yields about seventy-five pounds of bio-oil.

"So what?" you ask. "Why are we talking about a product that's a little bit cheaper than fuel oil, but needs to be stored in stainless steel containers and won't stay stable in storage. Where's the upside?"

Well, the first upside is that it doesn't come from the Middle East. That's so obvious and so valuable, that I won't go any further.

Next, we tend to think of oil as just that stuff we burn to make things go. In truth, petroleum is used in a vast number of products. Plastics, asphalt, fertilizer, pesticides, detergents, paints, artificial fibers in clothing, the list goes on and on.

A Canadian company, Ensyn, based in Ottawa, uses bio oil to produce products as varied as liquid smoke used to make meat taste barbequed to natural resins used in making engineered wood products such as plywood. These add a value far beyond just BTUs.

Bio mass is a pretty elastic term. It can be sawdust, tree trimmings, corn stalks - just about any waste plant matter fits the category. It can also be a crop in itself.

Switchgrass, for example. The native plant is a perennial and is highly resistant to most bugs. Once established it can produce eight to ten tons of biomass a year - three to four times the amount you can get from alfalfa. It makes a good forage crop and terrific wildlife habitat. It's good for the soil and terrific at preventing erosion.

Harvested in the spring or the fall, it can fit in almost any farmer's work program. No herbicide, no fertilizer. It sounds appealing, doesn't it?

As American farmers, we tend to work in an adversarial climate. Win/lose is quite often our point of view. It comes from competing for land and markets. We hate having the government or environmental groups tell us what to do. We just want to be left alone to farm. Well, we live in a complicated world and it's not nearly as easy to be left alone to do just as we will, and as long as the American taxpayer is putting billions of dollars into a farm program, they're going to want some input, too.

When more people come to the table, maybe it's time to stop thinking about win/lose and instead try and figure out a way for everyone to win. It's more bother, but ultimately more satisfying and more profitable.

When we can move into a crop rotation that is not only profitable but patriotic, when we can grow crops that help the environment and the bottom line, when we can make our banker, our kids, and the environmentalists happy, maybe it's worth taking a hard look at a new way of doing things.

Let's talk about pyrolysis.

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