Campus News

Decreasing U.S. oil dependency possible according to participants at UGA conference

Georgia residents, and drivers throughout much of the nation, saw the real-time costs of disruptions in gas supply when Hurricane Katrina closed down the two primary pipelines that ship gasoline from the multiple refineries on the Gulf coast. Many commentators argue that the disruptions and rising costs are not only the result of the storm, but are also directly associated with America’s dependency on foreign oil. So, what if the U.S. could replace 30 percent of its petroleum usage with biomass?

That was one of the primary questions discussed at the bioenergy conference held earlier this month at UGA. According to many participants, it might be possible in the not-too-distant future with enough research and continued support from the U.S. Departments of Energy, Agriculture and the Interior.

Biomass-carbon-based organic materials found in forests and crops-is a proven ingredient for creating ethanol and biodiesel fuels, according to Daniel Cassidy, a postdoctoral research associate at UGA’s Warnell School of Forest Resources. These fuels are price competitive with oil-based fuels because they are considered a renewable natural resource that is easily extracted and will not run dry.

Biomass fuels are also much more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels for two reasons. First, they increase fuel efficiency in automobiles. Second, the burning of organic biomass releases only as much carbon dioxide as can be stored by a tree or crop over its lifetime, unlike fossil fuels that add new sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This is significant because carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas associated with global warming.

The idea of replacing traditional gasoline with biomass fuels is increasingly attractive at a time when fossil fuel prices continue to skyrocket and timber and agriculture markets decline. The conference, titled “Status, Trends and Future of the South’s Forest and Agricultural Biomass,” was organized by UGA professor Ben Jackson, in response to these market trends, as part of a $1 million dollar federal contract managed by the Southern Forest ­Research Partnership, Inc., at the WSFR.

The goal of the conference was to “build a foundation and understanding of biomass issues, bring together scientists to discuss regional work and to assist them in receiving additional grant funding for continued research,” says Cassidy.

New timber markets

In addition to replacing some of the U.S. dependency on oil, biomass product and fuel development will also create new markets for Southern timberland owners and farmers as their traditional markets become a declining revenue source.

Another attractive quality of biomass is that it can be collected from materials that are traditionally considered waste; residual left after crop harvest and low-value timber cut to increase the health of managed forests. This also will reduce loads that collect in local landfills.

Outreach faculty

Educating farmers and timberland owners about these potential new markets will be the responsibility of the School of Forest Resources’ outreach faculty. And perfecting usage of biomass products, such as fuels, adhesives, chemicals and medicines, for consumers will be a responsibility of the proposed Center for Biorefining and Carbon Cycling at UGA. Once created (pending approval by the board of regents), the center will be an interdisciplinary organization involving the departments of engineering, chemistry, physics, biological, crop and soil sciences, forest resources and others.

While bioenergy is proposed to help reduce the volume of carbon dioxide released as a greenhouse gas, conference participants also learned more about carbon sequestration opportunities in their forests and farmland. Carbon sequestration is a process of storing excess carbon dioxide in natural environments, such as oceans and forests, rather than allowing continued accumulation in the atmosphere. Four tons of “green wood” has the capacity to store one ton of carbon.

Storing excess carbon

Last year the Georgia legislature passed a bill that directed the Georgia Forestry Commission to develop a registry of landowners who had natural resources available to store excess carbon. This registry is intended to become the foundation of a carbon trading market that will allow large-scale carbon dioxide producers, such as the energy giant Southern Company, to purchase carbon storage capacity from these landowners. In return, these companies will be able to off-set the purchased carbon storage capacity with carbon-dioxide released from their operations beyond federally regulated limits.

“I think forest sequestration has great potential,” says UGA forest economist Jacek Siry. “We hope the system we create can achieve the dual goal of providing revenue sources for timberland owners and additional carbon storage.”