Biomass Education Looks to Forest Residues

Prepared with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Darwin Foster plans to develop education modules on forest bio-fuel production, harvest and utilization. Foster is the forestry program leader at Texas Cooperative Extension, and his colleagues in Extension Forestry at Texas A&M University department of forest science will also work on the educational project.

“In Sweden, they’re already bundling up what (we would leave) in the forest after a timber harvest and using it as bio-fuel,” Foster said. “The whole point of this program is to work to reduce our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels.” Modules should be comprised of printed material, such as brochures and handbooks, and multi-media CD-ROMs and DVDs. Training modules will address: forest residue management for enhanced bio-fuel production, how to harvest and process forest residue for bio-fuel and other products, how to utilize biomass for bio-energy, bio-fuels and bio-based products; the socio-economic impacts and community development issues; and how to develop environmentally sustainable biomass production systems for bio-energy and bio-based products. Environmental sustainability may be expanded to educate the public. Some people might not understand the environmental benefits of burning forest residue to produce fuel, Foster said, but the economic benefits are two-fold. First, forest residue, such as limbs, bark, and treetops, are a renewable resource. Trees are efficient at turning sunlight, moisture and a few basic nutrients into biomass. Using forest residue as bio-fuel also will utilize a resource that is being left to rot in the field. “The key word is renewable,” Foster said. “As compared to fossil fuels, which take hundreds of millennia to create and are not renewable.” Another important issue is carbon sequestration. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, and sequester the carbon as part of the biomass. True, burning the residue emits carbon dioxide, Foster said, but as most of the harvested forest mass would be used for lumber, furniture and paper, there would still be a net sequestration of carbon. Science and preliminary economic studies show that forest residue can be an economically viable energy source, Foster said. What’s required is for everyone involved in the forestry industry – foresters, plant operators, forest landowners, energy producers and educators – to rethink how they do things. Using forest biomass as a fuel source is not unheard of in the United States. Forest product manufacturing concerns already burn wood residue in steam boilers. The steam is used to drive electrical generators and supply part of the energy needed to run the plant. Other mills use “black liquor” – the lignin-rich residue of the pulp and paper industry – for heat, steam and electric power generation. But currently, in both examples, the residue used is created at the plant during the manufacturing process, not recycled from the harvest site as many European countries do, Foster said. “In one of our meetings, a forest product manufacturer indicated that about 12 percent of the volume delivered to their plant wound up as residue,” he said. “It’s mostly bark, but there’s some fines (sawdust) too. But it’s just a drop in the bucket as far as their energy needs go.”
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