September 21, 2005


Clean car, but will its fuel be? (Mark Clayton, 9/22/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

It's one of the great conundrums of the hoped-for hydrogen economy. Most of the fuel today is extracted from natural gas, which would still leave America dependent on overseas energy. Domestic coal could be turned into hydrogen, but not without losing the environmental benefits of the technology.

So what's a nation to do?

Enter Francis Lau and his plan to turn agricultural waste like cornstalks, wood chips, or switch grass into hydrogen. Right now, that's expensive. But if he succeeds, it could mean a giant leap toward replacing oil with cheap, clean hydrogen.

All Mr. Lau needs is a breakthrough.

He and a team of scientists from the Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines, Ill., are trying to invent a very tough, yet permeable, membrane with which to extract hydrogen from gasified wood chips and cornstalks. The system would do this midway through the gasification process, instead of at the end of the pipe, saving considerable time and energy. The expected result: hydrogen that costs 20 to 40 percent less to produce than today's product and roughly in line with Department of Energy goals for 2010.

Best of all, the fuel would come from biomass, making it clean, renewable, and 100 percent American.

"There are challenges, but we do see a path forward," Lau says. The project is funded by the Department of Energy and a private company.

The effects could be huge. In Minnesota alone, where Lau's team is at work outside Duluth, hydrogen made from forest and mill residue, agricultural waste, and energy crops like switch grass could replace 89 percent of the state's gasoline needs, according to a February study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2005 9:19 PM

Try this. Assume a theoretically reasonable amount of Hydrogen you can get out of a ton of wood chips and Bio mass.

calculate how far that amount can move a car and compare it to a gallon of gasoline.

Extrapolate how many tons of bio mass are needed to fuel the current industrial energy needs of transportation alone.

My bet is we would exhaust a current year's supply of biomass in about one week. (though I don't know for sure)

Would some one get back to me when they've done the math?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: Bruno at September 21, 2005 9:57 PM


Indeed, the numbers don't look good.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 21, 2005 11:41 PM

Try this link:

There is some more discussion here:

I am a forester and see hundreds of acres of forest every day that are choked with diseased, dead, or low-value trees and would really benefit from a harvest. However, I don't think that turning them into ethanol would be the best solution - there are better uses (see the post and discusson in the website above on levers).

The other issue is that much of the "excess growth" in our forests is not and will not be available for harvest. Many of the lands I cross in my work are Forest Service Lands and as much as myself and the foresters working for the Forest Service gripe about the ridiculous process that ties almost all proposed timber sales up in process and litigation, all of us would be quick to point out many areas that shouldn't ever be harvested, even if we had carte blanche to manage as we pleased. The reasons are myriad - critical wildlife habitat, steep slopes, unstable soils, or simply sparse stocking which makes harvest uneconomical, etc. Also, there are limits to the amount of biomass you can remove without negatively affecting nutrient cycling.

It is fun to talk about the amount of increment (yearly increase) that goes unharvested, but we all know that even if all regulations were removed and we suddenly had a market for even the crappiest trees that much of it would stand until it died on its own.

In short, there is enough material out there to supplement our oil resources, but only a small fraction, and the costs of bringing the material to an ethanol plant would negate much of the benefit. The exception is wood fiber that is already at a central location - bark, sawdust, etc that constitutes the waste stream of a sawmill. However, this material is already used in all but the smallest, most inefficient mills as fuel for process heat such as heating kilns and producing steam. That leaves you with what? Construction waste, I assume - this would be a perfectly good use for that material, but wouldnt produce enough go-go juice for anyone to notice.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 22, 2005 12:02 AM

Can anyone steer me to a page that shows how to format and provide links in my comments as mike earl did above?

Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 22, 2005 12:18 AM

Enclose the link in an html tag containing the URL like this:
<a href="URL">Link Title</a>
Only the link title will display, and if clinked on it will take you to the URL.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2005 12:34 AM

Hydrogen is a crock. Protons are useful and if you have a cheap source for them, you can upgrade hydro-carbons that you have into cleaner burning and more useful forms, but hydrogen itself is way too cranky to store and transport. It is much better to turn the protons and carbohydrates into methanol or methane which can be transported and used by our existing infrastructure.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2005 12:53 AM

Cornstalks in my town are turned into silage for cows. A lot of corn is grown specifically for that purpose and not one is wasted. I wouldn't give up the sirloin steak I had for supper today for replacing my 200 H.P. gasoline engine with a wimpy hydrogen moped.

The solution is simple -- nuclear power plants.

But maybe this is all a tricky sleight of hand. Once the enviros are sold on electric and hydrogen vehicles, the demand will grow so much for electricity that nuclear power plants will be the only answer and even Jane Fonda will be demanding them.

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 22, 2005 3:23 AM

This string is why I'll never go back to the old media for information. Most of us, myself included, know next to nothing about forestry or alternate fuels, so reading comments by Jason and the others above who obviously do know what they're talking about, gives us ordinary citizens the information we need to make up our minds on complex issues.

I hope Bush has an initiative on nuclear energy on his near term agenda. One of the great shames and shams of the left/media over the past fifty years is their scare campaign against nuclear energy.

So much of the bad stuff that's happened since WWII could have been avoided if we would have followed the logical course of nuclear reactors for energy.

Posted by: erp at September 22, 2005 8:15 AM

JD and Robert:


Posted by: Jason Johnson at September 22, 2005 10:47 AM

Coal and oil are the Earth's way of making fuel from biomass. Why challenge her way of doing things?

Posted by: Shelton at September 22, 2005 11:21 AM


Because she doesn't do it fast enough, or in the right places.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 22, 2005 4:21 PM