Harvesting Bioenergy


Despite the economic, political, and other forces aligned against it, alternative energy development is proceeding in dozens of different sectors and regions. Scientists, private companies and investors cling to the vision that someday the world will fulfill its energy needs in ways that are less destructive and more sustainable than the current oil-based energy systems.

What has emerged is recognition that there will not be one large method to create this change. Instead, hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations are making smaller changes that they hope will total a major change in the world’s energy use.

In California and other rural areas of the U.S., for example, farmers are increasingly using farm waste to generate their own energy needs. Onfarms and ranches, innovative agriculturalists are developing renewable energy sources like natural gas, electricity and diesel fuel from their leftovers. Using everything from cow manure to onion juice to walnut shells, many of the state’s forward-thinking farmers are turning what had once been considered waste into a renewable energy solution for use on the farm and beyond.

California dairy producers are among those leading the charge in developing renewable energy on the farm. They’re doing this by installing methane digesters, a technology that allows them to capture the naturally occurring methane gas from their cows’ manure before it escapes into the atmosphere and convert that gas into usable energy such as electricity.

Meanwhile, many cities are using their collective power to convert the mountains of waste they process each year into useable energy. For example, the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta, has launched an innovative project to convert municipal waste into bio fuels.

The Edmonton Waste-to-Biofuels project will provide Edmonton the opportunity to reduce GHG emissions, create an environmentally responsible and competitive alternative to land filling, and produce clean biofuels. The project will enable the city to increase its residential waste diversion rate to 90%. It includes three facilities: a waste-to-biofuels production facility; an advanced energy research facility; a municipal waste processing facility.

In Britain, scientists say that much of the nation’s energy needs could be served by biofuels made from human waste such as wood, plastic and sewage. “Next generation” biofuels could be produced from agricultural wastes such as straw, as well as farmed energy crops such as willow. A network of waste converters across the country could produce a third of the diesel required by UK motorists while slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, some scientists continue to work on game-changing methods to create biofuel. At the University of Minnesota, research teams have created an alternative fuel that uses two types of bacteria to create hydrocarbons from sunlight and CO2. Those hydrocarbons can be made into renewable petroleum.


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