After searching, I found that Treehugger had touched on Canadian company Iogen last summer, but this article from National Geographic News was the first I’d heard of them, and I think they’re onto something. Iogen is in the ethanol business, but not the corn-based kind that only US politicians and corn farmers seem to love unconditionally. Rather, they’ve developed a process that “brews” wastes from plant farming into ethanol:
“Essentially we start with a bale of wheat straw, add enzymes to convert the straw into sugar, and then let fermentation and distillation make the sugar into ethanol.”
What’s more, producing ethanol with this process creates a byproduct called lignin, a mix of polymers found naturally in woody plants that binds plant fibers together.
The lignin extracted from farm waste can be burned like coal to power the ethanol production facility, according to Iogen.
“Almost a quarter of plant fiber is lignin, which can be extracted to run the boiler,” Easterly, the energy consultant, said.
Hosein Shapouri of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that such factories wouldn’t need energy from fossil fuels to run the plant.
“[They] can even produce extra electricity that can be sent to the public power grid,” Shapouri said. “These plants will be self-sufficient.”
And farmers operating near the plants will be offered a new source of income for their previously discarded agricultural waste.
Now that’s the way to produce ethanol. We’d still provide a benefit to farmers, and wouldn’t have to limit that benefit to one kind of farmer. And the waste itself provides the source of the fuel as well as the source of energy to create that fuel — I’m also guessing the carbon emissions from burning lignin would be much lower than fossil fuels. The only problem Iogen has had is investor reluctance to fund the first commercial-scale plant (everyone wants to fund the second plant, after they work out the bugs in the first one). That’s changed now, as Goldman Sachs has thrown $30 million into the pot. Somebody please tell our Midwestern politicians about this so we can avoid the pitfalls of corn-based ethanol — this looks like a true win-win.
By the way, if you’re interested in more details of the crop wastes to fuel industry, make sure to check out C. Scott Miller’s Bioconversion Blog — that’s his thing, and he’s definitely got his finger on the pulse…