August 18, 2007
Biomass Energy Will Boost Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Switching to biofuels will accelerate the rise in CO2 emissions.

Increasing production of biofuels to combat climate change will release between two and nine times more carbon gases over the next 30 years than fossil fuels, according to the first comprehensive analysis of emissions from biofuels.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? Stop and think about where the land would come from to grow biomass crops: Places that are now forests. Those forest contain large quantities of carbon dioxide. The clearing of forests to turn them into biomass energy croplands releases so much CO2 that it takes several decades for the resulting reduction in fossil fuels use to cancel out the effects of CO2 release by destroyed forests.

What is more, environmentalists have expressed concerns that the growing political backing that biofuel is enjoying will mean forests will be chopped down to make room for biofuel crops such as maize and sugarcane. "When you do this, you immediately release between 100 and 200 tonnes of carbon [per hectare]," says Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust, UK, a conservation agency that seeks to preserve rainforests.

Greenie supporters of biofuels are helping to destroy massive amounts of rain forests.

"Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia among others have huge deforestation programmes to supply the world biofuel market", says the study's co-author Dominick Spracklen from Leeds University.

According to an article in the French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, Brazil aims to supply 30% of the world's ethanol market by 2025. Last year it reclassified 200 million hectares as "degraded land" to release it for biofuel crop. Presently, it is growing crops such as sugar cane on land the size of Britain and the Benelux countries combined.

By 2025 the Brazilian government intends to expand that area fivefold to meet 10% of the world's petrol requirement. And last year it reclassified 200 million hectares as "degraded land" to release for crop cultivation.

I can see one way around this problem: Bury the biomass material in a sealed underground cavern. That way the CO2 from the destroyed forest won't make it into the atmosphere. Though that approach would still drastically shrink habitats available to all the species currently living in rain forests. Another alternative: Only grow biomass energy crops in areas which are currently barren with little plant life. Those areas tend to lack water. So how to irrigate? How about nuclear energy to drive massive desalination plants and to pump the water inland to deserts? Then deserts could bloom with plant life.

Destruction of rain forests to create land for biomass energy crops such as sugar cane ought to strike environmentalists as a bad idea before even considering effects on CO2 emissions. Yet so far the chorus against biomass energy is pretty quiet as compared to the chorus against CO2 emissions as a cause of climate change.

Near as I can tell the real oil reserves and natural gas reserves remaining are so low that world CO2 emissions are headed for a fall within a couple of decades. So the destruction of the rain forests to grow energy crops to displace fossil fuels isn't necessary in the first place. The fight against global warming is the wrong battle. Instead we should think a lot more on how to shift to wind, solar, and nuclear power as replacements for fossil fuels that aren't even going to exist to burn. The biggest challenge is how to make electric power more usable in transportation.

Update: Current carbon trading schemes will even accelerate deforestation.

New research indicates that slowing tropical deforestation may play a much larger role in mitigating climate change than previously believed [1,2]. Carbon emissions from tropical deforestation are expected to increase atmospheric CO2 concentration by between 29 and 129 ppm within 100 years, much more than previously estimated [3]. The parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are considering policy approaches and incentives for reducing emissions from deforestation (RED) in developing countries [4–6] that are timely, in light of these recent research findings. The leading proposals would enable trading of carbon saved by reducing tropical deforestation, just as carbon is currently traded from reducing industrial emissions. The state of these discussions suggests that a key group of countries are at risk of being omitted from a new framework—those with high forest cover and low rates of deforestation (HFLD).

Developing countries can be classified into four categories defined by two axes: remaining forest cover and deforestation rate (Figure 1). The HFLD countries in Quadrant IV harbor 18% of tropical forest carbon. Since current proposals would award carbon credits to countries based on their reductions of emissions from a recent historical reference rate [4], HFLD countries could be left with little potential for RED credits. Nor would they have the potential for reforestation credits under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism that the countries in Quadrant II have. Without the opportunity to sell carbon credits, HFLD countries would be deprived of a major incentive to maintain low deforestation rates. Since drivers of deforestation are mobile, deforestation reduced elsewhere could shift to HFLD countries, constituting a significant setback to stabilizing global concentrations of greenhouse gases at the lowest possible levels.

The development of cellulosic technologies to generate ethanol from cellulose will also accelerate deforestation by increasing the demand for wood cellulose.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 August 18 11:15 PM  Energy Biomass

JMG3Y said at August 19, 2007 10:29 AM:

The another critical carbon problem with biofuels not mentioned in that piece is that associated with the management of the soils from which farmed biomass is produced, particularly their organic matter content. Conventional farming practices tend to reduce organic matter content over time, releasing large quantities of sequestered carbon to the atmosphere. Healthy soil is an exceptionally complex system that we are only beginning to understand and conventional practices tend to markedly reduce this complexity. Major research advances of the last decade, such as the discovery of glomalin and improving soil assessment technology, will likely change what are regarded as optimal farming practices fairly significantly.

Glomalin: Hiding Place for a Third of the World's Stored Soil Carbon

Soil Quality

An on-line text for gaining an understanding what is going on here:
Building Soils for Better Crops, 2nd Edition

An example of a researcher applying her research findings:
Managing the soil as a habitat for soil biological fertility

Three posts from Gary Jones's blog "Muck and Mystery" commenting on a range of this recent work:

Jerry in Omaha said at August 19, 2007 1:22 PM:


Excuse me! But this is just wrong. So wrong.

"Bury the biomass material in a sealed underground tavern. That way the CO2 from the destroyed forest won't make it into the atmosphere."

Please read this paper by Dr. Johannes Lehmann, of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell:

For more detailed information and links go here:

For long term sequestration, let's put the carbon in the soil where it belongs and where it can be a boon to sustainable agricultural productivity as well.

Jerry in Omaha

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2007 2:05 PM:


Three points:

1) How much carbon gets relesed if biomass is turned into biochar? My guess is a large percentage still escapes into the atmosphere.

2) A rain forest has a huge quantity of biomass per acre. The amount of biochar produced by Lehmann's method might be far too much to till into the ground where it was dug up from.

3) We should not cut down rain forests any more than we already have.

Jerry in Omaha said at August 19, 2007 2:56 PM:


Read the scientific paper by Dr. Lehmann. He answers all your questions. Also the Terra Preta site has great links for additional information.

Oh, and you guess wrong.

The major point is that biomass needs to be raised and harvested in a dedicated program for maximum benefits.

Totally agree with you wrt chopping down rain forests. Bloody barbaric. Must stop.

Jerry in Omaha

Fat Man said at August 19, 2007 9:47 PM:

"Bury the biomass material in a sealed underground tavern."

A sealed underground tavern does not sound like a convivial place to gather with a few friends for a round of beers;-)

Mark Konrad said at November 1, 2007 8:32 AM:

Cellulosic ethanol production utilises primarily non-edible agricultural waste, the material that's left over after food farming: cornstalks, corncobs, wheat straw, hay, peanut shells, fruit seeds, etc. etc. Wood bark, sawdust, macerated small branches, pine cones, pine needles etc. from the lumber and forestry industries are also suitable biomass for CE production. Fast growing woody shrubs that coppice well such as European Hazel (Corylus avellana) and various willows (Genus: Salix) are also excellent candidates for intensive, compact plantings as a continual source of biomass. These species will grow in areas not particularly well suited for food production. European Hazel does produce an edible nut in addition to its biomass properties.

There are thousands of square miles of extremely poor soil in the American Southwest. That land will not support food crops to any practical extent but it will support non-edible native plants that are fast or moderately fast growing and extremely drought-tolerant (i.e. little if any requirement for irrigation. Buffalo gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) is just one example. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) is another. There are many more.). That land presently lies fallow -- it's used for little or no commercial or agricultural purpose. It can however support enormous quantities of native, non-edible plants which can be used for biomass and with virtually no re-direction of water resources. If the agricultural sector of the United States is utilised to its fullest capacity the country can produce all the food it needs as well as a significant percentage of its vehicle-fuel (ethanol) requirements.

By the way, there is a neutralisation of the CO2 index when CO2 consumption during plant growth is taken into consideration and contrasted with CO2 emission resulting from ethanol combustion.

- - - - - - -

Mascoma to build first commercial wood to ethanol plant

Posted by Giles Clark, London

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The Mascoma Corporation will build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Michigan in its race to be the first in the nation to produce ethanol from wood on a commercial scale it was announced recently. The plant, says the company, will turn the state's abundant, non-food plant life into clean-burning fuel. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), led by President and CEO James C. Epolito, is working with Mascoma on a tax incentive package for the project.

Unlike most current biofuel production operations, Mascoma's Michigan cellulosic plant will make ethanol from mainly wood chips and other non-food agricultural crops. Most of the nation's biofuel facilities now in production, or under construction, convert corn and other food crops into fuel. Because cellulosic ethanol production uses non-food agricultural feedstock, it is critical to producing ethanol on a scale that could substitute for imported oil.

Mascoma chose Michigan for the new plant based on the abundance of forestry and agricultural materials and the expertise found at Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University who will partner with Mascoma on the project to develop and hone scientific processes and Michigan feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production.

Michigan State will provide expertise in areas including pretreatment technology for cellulosic ethanol production and assistance with energy crops that can be utilized by the biorefinery. Michigan Tech will provide expertise through its "Wood to Wheels" initiative. This includes optimization of forestry feedstock materials for energy use, knowledge of sustainable forestry management practices, and access to its automotive engineering laboratories for analysis of the biofuels produced at the project site.

Mascoma Corporation is a low-carbon cellulosic biomass-to-ethanol company headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a research and development laboratory in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Mascoma is developing advanced technologies in its own laboratory with Professor Lee Lynd at Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering by licensing "best in class" microorganisms and enzymes, and with other sponsored research around the world. It is also developing demonstration and commercial scale production facilities in several locations.


* * *

Mascoma Corporation to Build Nation's First Switchgrass Cellulosic Ethanol Plant

27 September 2007

Mascoma Corporation, a leader in advanced low-carbon energy biotechnology, today announced that it intends to establish the country's first operating facility producing cellulosic ethanol utilizing switchgrass as feedstock. The project represents one of the largest commitments of capital yet made in support of the cellulosic biofuels industry.

Mascoma and The University of Tennessee plan to jointly build and operate the five million gallon per year cellulosic biorefinery. Construction is expected to begin by the end of 2007 and the facility will be operational in 2009. The business partnership and plans for the facility are a result of Tennessee Governor Bredesen's Biofuels Initiative, a research and business model designed to reduce dependence on foreign oil and provide significant economic and environmental benefits for Tennessee's farmers and communities. It includes a $40 million investment in facility construction and $27 million for research and development activities, including incentives for farmers to grow switchgrass funded by the State and The University of Tennessee. The large-scale demonstration facility will be located in Monroe County, Tennessee.

The University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture will support the establishment of switchgrass as an energy crop. Initial research conducted by the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture indicates that Tennessee is capable of generating over one billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass alone.

The facility is complemented by research efforts at nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In June, Oak Ridge was awarded $125 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to fund the Bioenergy Science Center, a research collaborative to address fundamental science and technology challenges to commercially producing cellulosic ethanol.

Mascoma Building Three Cellulosic Biorefineries

The Tennessee project is Mascoma's third cellulosic biorefinery. Mascoma has begun construction on its first facility announced in 2006, a multi-feedstock demonstration-scale biorefinery located in Rome, New York. This project is being developed in partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In July 2007, the company announced plans to build one of the nation's first commercial scale biorefineries using wood as a feedstock. This project is located in the State of Michigan and is being developed with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and partners including Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University.

Mascoma CEO Bruce A. Jamerson said, "We are excited about our partnership, the first to produce biofuels from switchgrass, and the opportunity in the future, to expand our production to commercial scale. Along with the new DOE Bioenergy Research Center at nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee will have a one-two punch addressing our nation's need for low-carbon, domestically produced energy."

About Mascoma Corporation

Mascoma Corporation is a leader in advanced low-carbon energy biotechnology based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It produces biofuels from lignocellulosic biomass using proprietary microorganisms and enzymes developed in its Lebanon, New Hampshire laboratories and with research partners throughout the world. Mascoma's production processes have a substantially lower carbon footprint impact on the environment than those of other liquid transportation fuels. Mascoma is developing demonstration and commercial scale production facilities in locations across the United States.


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