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Friday, April 07, 2006

Have you said "Biomass" lately?

2006 may go down in history as the year of biomass. In March, Florida's Governor Bush and the State legislature announced a new initiative to lead the nation in biomass energy production. Due to its large agriculture segment and growth forest industries, Florida ranks as the No. 1 biomass producer in the nation. At the same time, Florida ranks third in total energy consumption, and fifth in per-capita energy consumption.

Biomass, simply stated, is the total mass of plant material and animal waste, which can be converted to fuel or energy. Vegetative and animal waste has always been the source of available energy on the planet however, during the industrial centuries, energy, has been produced using fossil forms of the biomass, non-renewable sources including coal, oil, and natural gas. These energy sources are considered non-renewable and therefore not included in estimates of total biomass.

Until recently, biomass fuels such as wood and dung were considered the only reliable renewable fuels because the technology needed to release the energy stored in them was simply burning. 98% of biomass consists of low energy vegetative waste from crops such as sugar cane and corn stalks. A process to efficiently and cleanly extract the energy stored in this waste had been elusive, until now that is.

Working at The University of Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels, Professor Lonnie Ingram - A member of the National Academy of Sciences - has succeeded in genetically engineered a strain of E. coli organism by cloning the unique genes needed to direct the digestion of sugars into ethanol, the same pathway found in yeast and higher plants. Inserting these genes into a variety of bacteria that have the ability to use all sugars found in plant material produces ethanol, a high grade, clean burning energy source.

According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, ethanol generated from biomass could replace half of our country's imported petroleum. It is estimated that more than 1-billion tons of biomass can be produced in the United States each year, a new cash crop for struggling small farmers and a release from the costly and ecologically damaging process of finding and transporting increasingly rare fossil fuels.

To read more about biomass fuel technologies go to U.S. Department of Energy, Biomass Program.

by Harlan Weikle
Greener Magazine

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