Wilderness Underfoot: Renewable energy derived from nature

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With concern over a staggering increase in the cost of fossil fuels, as well as the fuels’ effects on the Earth’s climate, scientists are studying whether plants can solve our energy problems.

Most of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum and natural gas. These fuels were formed from prehistoric plants and animals, and have been stored in the Earth for millions of years. Fossil fuels provide concentrated energy, but not without a huge environmental cost. By burning them, we release gases—which have been trapped in the Earth for millions of years—back into the atmosphere. These gases now appear to be altering the world’s climate. Soot and toxic chemicals are also released during the burning of fossil fuels, endangering the environment and human health.

And environmental damage isn’t the only problem: fossil fuels are running out, perhaps faster than we ever imagined.

Current worldwide shortages are being blamed on limitations in the supply of fossil fuels, ever-increasing demand by rich nations, industrial growth in China and developing nations, and industry shenanigans that exploit consumers. Scientists who study renewable energy are urging governments around the world to respond with a strong commitment to finding alternative energy sources.

One of most promising alternatives is renewable biomass energy. In biology, the term “biomass” means the total mass of living matter in the environment. When speaking of using biomass as a fuel, scientists are specifically referring to renewable plant materials and waste products such as manure.

The use of biomass as fuel goes back to ancient times when early humans first learned to control fire. Our ancestors burned wood, plant matter and dung to produce heat for warmth, cooking, and eventually, to create pottery, metal tools and other works. The burning of biomass continues to this day, and while it doesn’t dump ancient carbon dioxide deposits into the air like the burning of fossil fuels does, it wastes energy and creates pollution. To address these problems, scientists have been working on cleaner, more efficient ways to convert biomass into energy. They’ve developed three primary methods: thermochemical, biochemical, and chemical.

In thermochemical conversion, biomass is heated, but not burned, to extract gases, liquids and solids that can be used as clean fuel. A common fuel derived from this process is methane gas.

In biochemical conversion, bacteria, yeast and enzymes are used to break down or ferment biomass. The process results in such fuels as methane gas and ethanol.

In chemical conversion, oils extracted from biomass such as soybeans, rapeseed, or algae are used to replace diesel and other fuels.

Renewable biomass energy presently accounts for 3 percent of all energy consumed in the U.S. The goal is to expand the use of biomass fuels and to cut back our dependence on fossil fuels.

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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