Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cellulosic Ethanol in the News

Story in the Northfield News yesterday about Dan Rather himself coming to town to interview David Legvold about ethanol. Legvold, who was a brilliant Daddy Warbucks in the Arts Guild production of "Annie," is also the director of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and a farmer, so he knows something about the economic and environmental issues in ethanol production.

Story on MPR this morning about how corn-based ethanol isn't a good long-term biofuel solution because of the high energy costs and negative environmental impacts of corn production and how some scientists at the U of M are working on techniques for converting trees to ethanol. Apparently, the barrier to be overcome is that trees have too much cellulose. But one researcher said that problem will be solved within ten years, maybe five.

The forest products industry (read: logging) is in a bit of a slump right now, what with the flat housing market and some competing materials (aluminum framing, composite flooring and decking, etc.), so the loggers are excited about the potential for grinding up trees -- and not just the trunks, but every little piece -- to make ethanol. Somebody said that millions of tons of detritus are left on the forest floors every year after the loggers haul the trunks and big limbs off.

But environmentalists worry (it's what they do best) that not leaving pieces behind to rot and enrich the soil would mean terrible erosion, a blow to biodiversity, a reduction to wildlife habitat.

So, it seems a stalemate is inevitable unless a new source of cellulosic plant life can be found. A source no one particularly cares about one way or another. Leave the corn for people and domesticated farm animals to eat; leave the forests to the Isaac Walton League and Weyerheuser to wrangle over.

My solution: plant buckthorn!

It's perfect. Everybody seems to hate buckthorn, labeling it a "menace." It clearly grows quite well without any help from humans -- no need for tons of chemicals and fertilizers. Farmers can easily convert from other crops, fencing off a portion of their fields for buckthorn. Cut the most mature 1/3 of it down each year, grind it up and ship it off to the ethanol plant. We will have converted a menace into manna, saved the primeval forests, and given the struggling farmers another cash crop option.

Hail buckthorn!


Bleeet said...

Okay... I have to do this. Imagine the public relations team coming up with a slogan to promote the wisdom of using your idea over a food crop for alternative fuel. I submit to you, as the in-your-face launching pad for this campaign, the following tag line:

Fuck corn... Buckthorn!!

Jim H. said...


David Mamet could write the ad copy and The Smashing Pumpkins could record the jingle.

David Legvold could do the voice-over.

As the character played by Kevin Kline said in "A Fish Called Wanda": Don't EVER call me stupid!

Rob Hardy said...

Here's someone who appears to be on your side, Jim. This is Chuck Peters, of the New York Botanical Gardens, quoted in Alan Weisman's new book, The World Without Us: "What makes New York a great city now is its cultural diversity. Everyone has something to offer. But botanically, we're xenophobic. We love native species, and want aggressive, exotic plant species to go home."