Biomass: Hope and Hype

President Bush thinks weeds can supplant oil from the Middle East. Is he out in left field?

Published: 15-Feb-2006

Our dependence on foreign oil has researchers and policymakers taking another hard look at weeds and corn stalks as sources of home-grown fuel.

President Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, announced last month, calls for research into biofuels from "cellulosic" plant waste, "to displace up to 30 percent of the nation's current fuel use." Indeed, in his State of the Union address, the president suggested that one solution to the nation's "addiction" to oil could be fuel derived from switchgrass, a tall plant native to U.S. prairies. Reinforcing that vision, more than one recent study has suggested that biomass could eventually play a significant role in U.S. transportation energy needs, and do so without adding to the carbon in the atmosphere.

But are these realistic scenarios -- or just wishful thinking? The idea of using biomass for energy isn't new of course. Already, about four billion gallons of ethanol are produced yearly in the United States by fermenting corn and distilling out its energy-rich alcohol. But the amount that can be produced is limited by the land required to grow the corn. What's more, the process for producing ethanol is inefficient, requiring nearly as much energy to make as is available in the final product.

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