Public Comment

Commentary: BioEnergy Institute and BP Grant Are Already Archaic

By James Singmaster
Friday October 26, 2007

Regrettably, UC Berkeley, which just had a big opening show Oct. 22 for its Joint BioEnergy Institute, will soon see the bioenergy concept drop dead after so much hoopla from the University and BP on bioenergy having great “possibilities to save the world.” The hydrogen fuel future may be fast approaching as German scientists at the Max Planck Institute announced a few weeks ago their finding a catalyst that uses sunlight energy to convert water into hydrogen. Hydrogen for fuel and windmills for electric power have no pollution or residual junk problems and should be setup as fast as possible to give us clean energy, and most of the bioenergy concept will soon be laughed about for its shortsightedness. 

Unfortunately, we have the legacy from fossil fuel burning and nuclear power of environmental overloads of carbon dioxide and heat energy that will not go away without some program to reduce their levels on the globe. Some might claim especially on seeing the October National Geographic article on “Carbon’s New Math” that somehow due to a misleading chart there, we will see the level of that gas in the atmosphere drop with clean energy. But that defies the basic laws of conservation of mass and energy, meaning that the overloads will remain to continue global warming that is melting ice faster than predicted and is making nastier weather every month now. 

As I have indicated in several previous Planet letters describing one way to get control of global warming, we have to have a program to actually remove some of the overloads. 

One step to at least recycle some of the extra heat energy causing higher wind speeds is to establish windmill farms in place of fossil fuel power plants. The much more efficient windmills set up last year in the Rio Vista area get very little mention for some reason in our Governor’s green hoopla. The much bigger step to reduce levels of GHGs especially carbon dioxide is the pyrolysis of our massive amounts of organic wastes that cost megabucks in dump maintaining fees while giving off that gas plus methane and energy as the wastes biodegrade. Our organic wastes are a massive biofuels crop wasted, which could be converted by pyrolysis into some energy and charcoal to remove some of the carbon nature trapped in plants, but instead we allow those wastes to re-emit that gas in dumps and especially in the major composting operations being done now by dumps and especially in the major composting operations being done now by many waste handling companies. Using wastes in pyrolysis requires no usurping of land and water from food crops, several of which have seen big price jumps affecting consumers according to several recent news articles. In addition to the charcoal, pyrolysis releases a distillate of water and organic compounds that could be refined to supply the needs for drug and plastic products free from the usual oil starting basis. 

What the Institute could turn to is making the pyrolysis process as efficient as possible, and, for speeding the removal of carbon dioxide, it could look into some tree crops to be harvested in a regular manner to be pyrolyzed. Tree crops with alfalfa growing under them could provide food still especially for various animals, and we may need a considerable amount of tree planting for wind breaks to prevent soil erosion, an oncoming global warming problem, that the UN-Scientific Expert Group report from Sigma Xi warned about last May. With pyrolysis, everything but the beauty of trees gets utilized to reduce global warming especially if hydrogen can fire the process. Remember trees are recyclers, not permanent sinks, of carbon dioxide as they shed leaves, flowers, etc. to decay, so getting any real action on controlling global warming requires taking advantage of nature’s trapping of carbon dioxide while stopping her from using her biodegrading system to reemit the gas.  


Fremont resident James Singmaster is a retired environmental toxicologist.