Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 11:37:02 AM EST
The first energy source to ever be used by humans was biomass. Man was aware of the wood's usefulness in producing fire, and thus heat, more than 400,000 years ago. Yet over the course of history, oil and its byproducts turned out to surpass in efficiency any other energy source. Oil is even perceived to have caused several economic recessions (1973 OPEC Crisis) as well as given rise to a number of armed conflicts (The Gulf War, partly the War on Terror). Current estimations discussed on EuroTrib show that crude oil fields will be depleted at latest by 2100. The question that we are facing - Is there anything as efficient and non-harmful (it turns out most of the current alternative energy sources are even less environment-friendly than petroleum) as oil that we could use in its place?
We could try to fit biomass back in the picture and look at some expert opinions on how well this ancient energy source could set us off the course of oil dependence. However, a clarification as to what exactly qualifies as biomass should be made. A good general idea of what is being discussed could be obtained through the article in Wikipedia. To put it shortly biomass is any matter, which stores solar energy in the form of chemical energy.
After some online research, it seems to me that the most promising biomass component that is being introduced in a dozen of European countries (as well as the US) is the Miscanthus grass. Miscanthus is a tall perennial grass that can be grown in both cool climates and areas with warmer weather. The plant is native to the region of East Asia and attempts to put it to use as an energy source have been made as early as 1980. However, some crop failures at the time cooled the eagerness of most of the experts and it has not been until recently that new experiments with Miscanthus have been conducted.
The current results are quite promising since it turns out that Miscanthus is very cost-efficient and the farms producing it increase employment by a reasonably high number (the production requires extensive labor). The input/output ratio and the energy balance of the grass are also claimed to be higher than most other biomass plants although I could not find any particular numbers. The Miscanthus can be grown in a wide spectrum of climate conditions and is said to produce a relatively high, regular yields. All of the above features, combined with the lack of health hazards to humans make one wonder why isn't Miscanthus more widely exploited.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that the building of the infrastructure required to exploit Miscanthus more extensively requires large-scale risky investment, since some unexpected problems might arise. The cost of labor and the cost of transportation are two other costs that have to be taken into account. Although, growing and harvesting Miscanthus might be cost-efficient, the cost of converting the plants to fuel added to the cost of building up the necessary infrastructure drives possible investors away. Further setbacks include some ecological risks like changes in the environment, which may drive some native plants out of existence. Currently, researchers are still trying to determine whether Miscanthus conversion to fuel produces any harmful emissions or not.
I couldn't get my hands on any further details covering this specific energy source but I am looking forward to your sharing of your own findings. I also think that's a good time to have a discussion on how we could get rid of our "oil addiction."
Photos courtesy of Dr. I. Lewandowski and Warren Gretz