Bioenergy, Solar, Wind Power

Could photosynthesis be harnessed for electrical power?

I was wondering if anyone is exploring the possibility of being able to extract electrical energy directly from trees? They do such a great job using photosynthesis, I thought someone might find a way to tap into this for energy. There’s all that energy activity going that seems to be under-utilized. JB, Des Plaines, IL

JB – Scientists are on a ‘full court press’ to harness nature’s processes to tap into energy and other products and processes. Trees do not generate electricity though, but they do use sunlight to convert sugars into energy to grow. The April 2005 U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture report, “A Billion-Ton Feedstock Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry”, helps to dismiss those who question the ability of biomass to supply enough energy to meaningfully displace petroleum. This study found that biomass production potential in the U.S. exceeds 1.3 billion dry tons per year, which is enough to meet over one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels. University and national laboratory scientists have a plethora of research from tapping into algae to produce hydrogen and ethanol, tweaking photosynthesis to accelerate biomass growth and resistance to drought and pests, and configuring genes of algae, plants and woody biomass so their cellulose, sugar or molecular setup is more conducive to existing conversion processes and growing regimens. The recently passed Energy bill creates an ethanol mandate requiring fuel manufacturers to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline by 2012 – a move that will reduce oil consumption by 80,000 barrels of oil a day by 2012, according to Energy Information Administration. Even the United Nation’s Conference on Trade Development (UNCTAD) has launched the Biofuels Initiative which will coordinate different activities jointly with other UN agencies, private sector, non-governmental organizations and applied research centers. The meeting stressed that biofuels (bioethanol, biodiesel and biogas), derived from agricultural crops such as sugar beet and sunflower, are an ecological alternative to conventional fossil fuels, that they state, “are expected to last no more than 50 years for petroleum, 60 years for natural gas and 200 years for coal”. And I continually point out that the versatility of biomass for thermal energy, electricity, and transportation fuels makes it one of the most flexible renewable energy options. Conversion of biomass needs to incorporate the use of other renewables (geothermal, hydropower. solar electric and thermal, and wind) as well as utilize more of the biomass co-product and waste heat to enhance its positive energy balance further. I expect this decade and next to culminate in substantive advances in research, new applied applications, and solid growth in market share for all the biomass energy sectors. – – Scott Sklar