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Toward a Sustainability Bioenergy Platform

The slides I presented on September 27th at the First Nations’ Futures Program at Stanford University are available for viewing for anyone interested:

Toward a Sustainability Bioenergy Platform

To summarize, the purpose of the First Nations’ Futures Program is “to establish a world class fellowship program focused on building First Nations’ capacity through developing values based leadership and more integrated solutions for managing First Nation’s assets / resources.” These are the leaders and future leaders of First Nations’ groups like the Māori of New Zealand, Native Hawaiians, and Native Americans. These are the people who are often tasked with managing group resources so they are still available for future generations. Thus, sustainable energy is high on their list of priorities.

My presentation starts with some of the traditional aspects we think of being related to sustainability, but then talks about a more systematic and objective method for measuring sustainability. I cover the fact that sustainable solutions are different in different locales. For example, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has been deemed to be potentially sustainable by a Dutch group who attempted to measure sustainability based on six categories. But take that example and move it to a location that doesn’t receive ample rainfall, or a location in which the terrain is prone to erosion, and what was sustainable in one case is not sustainable in another. On the topic of sustainability, one size definitely does not fit all. I also contrast the U.S. to Brazil to show why the two are not at all comparable.

Finally, I spend three slides to present for the first time in public a tentative org chart for my new organization, our platform, and our strategy. The org chart has been sanitized to remove some company names from the boxes, as some deals are not ready to be publicized. As indicated previously, I sit in the “Merica” box, but spend most of my time working on the Global Conversions leg of the platform.

Next up is the Pacific Rim Summit in a week. I will be on a panel with Guy Cellier – the President and founder of Forest Solutions – and Professor Scott Turn from the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii. The topic will be sustainable bioenergy.

October 31, 2009 Posted by | bioenergy, sustainability | 49 Comments

Don’t Weep for the Trees

While I have no intention of changing the general theme of this blog, I will spend some essays in the future providing more details behind my new job in Hawaii. I did this on occasion with my previous job at Accsys, but the focus of the blog remained on energy, sustainability, and the environment.

As explained in the previous essay, my new role involves development of an integrated bioenergy platform. We believe this to be a different way of looking at the problem of turning biomass into energy, and then ultimately supplying that energy to customers. We are not tying ourselves to a specific technology platform; we are using different platforms as suited for specific local needs. We are also as concerned about the sustainability of the biomass as we are the sustainability of the processes we will utilize.

Since moving to Hawaii, I have been asked to give talks at the local high school here about energy and sustainability. During one recent talk I was explaining some of the things we are thinking about as a company, specifically for alternative energy in Hawaii. One of the students said “I heard you were going to cut down all the trees.” At that moment, I realized that her view of forestry was much the same as my own view of forestry growing up in Weyerhaeuser country in Oklahoma. I viewed foresters as people who cut down trees, and I associated them with clear cutting.

My views have changed a lot since then, because I have met a lot of foresters and have a better understanding of what they do. Foresters are people who manage forests. With a managed forest, sometimes that means you harvest the trees like you would harvest any other crop. But managing a forest entails replacing what you cut down (thinning is an important exception).

That makes sense when you think about why people went into forestry in the first place: They love trees (and not in the same way that a polar bear loves humans) and they love the outdoors. They are very conscious of the important role trees play in the environment, and as such they are generally very good stewards of the trees and land they manage.

As indicated in my recent interview with Katie Fehrenbacher, sustainable forestry is a critical component of our platform. We have a forestry company called Forest Solutions, and our ultimate goal is to manage all of the forest assets that we will use in our platform.

So why do we like woody biomass? Why not switchgrass? Sugarcane? Crop residues? Various sources of biomass have their strengths and weaknesses. Very high on the list for a sustainable model is to take care of the soil. One of the questions I sometimes pose is “What would the soil condition be after 500 years in a particular service?” If the answer is not approximately as good or better than the present, then it doesn’t meet the sort of criteria that I am looking for (of course taking into consideration that the soil doesn’t have to be utilized for the same purpose for the entire duration).

There are many potential pitfalls when considering biomass. Some sources are heavy users of nutrients, and as such the fertilization requirements can be high – especially when they are on short rotation. This can imply high fossil fuel inputs and a high risk for soil depletion. Some crops are heavy users of water. Sugarcane ethanol has been judged to be potentially sustainable for Brazil, but it may be a different story in areas that require irrigation.

Trees are different. During the first 10 years or so of their lives, trees can accumulate biomass at the rate of 7-10 bone dry tons per acre per year. You may see some switchgrass yields that are claimed to be that high, but those were almost certainly with fertilizer and plenty of water. But even if the yields were the same, the difference is that you have many harvests of the switchgrass over 10 years to get the same yield as one harvest of trees. Each harvest comes at the cost of energy and labor inputs.

But there is an even more compelling reason to utilize trees. Unlike most of the short-rotation crops that are frequently discussed as feedstock for fuel production, trees can actually improve the quality and health of the soil.

While this is not news to our foresters, it was something that I had not given much thought to until recently. I was taking a tour of a new energy lab being built here on the Big Island, and someone pointed out a plot of land behind the lab and said “We tested the fertility of that soil, and it is much higher than that of the surrounding soil.” I asked why, and was told that there used to be a stand of trees there.

What happens is that trees can bring up nutrients from the subsoil and concentrate them in the leaves and bark. This ends up falling back to the soil and adding to the organic material in the soil. Depending on the specific trees you use, managed forests can provide fuel while improving soil quality. You could also envision rotating trees with other crops to rebuild fertility.

A good example of the potential of trees can be found on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii. For years the coast was planted in sugarcane. While the area gets plenty of water, it is also very hilly. The sugarcane operations led to a large amount of soil erosion. People who were around during that time said that the normally blue water would be brown for long stretches as soil ran off into the ocean.

The sugarcane industry was ultimately abandoned there, and the area is now planted in trees. The erosion has stopped, and the soil has started to recover. The ocean is once again blue there, and I was told today that a reef that had been damaged by soil runoff is healthy again.

So do not weep for the trees we will use. The right trees are ideal sources of biomass if they are properly managed. Besides providing fuel, they are going to perform an important function – recycling nutrients from the subsoil to the topsoil. The trees that are cut will be replanted. The forests we use will be from managed plantations, and not from rain forest or old growth forests.

That is a general overview of the first leg of the platform. There are a number of assets under management, as well as various acquisitions in progress. At some point I will provide details of these holdings and how we plan to use them.

October 21, 2009 Posted by | alternative energy, forestry, Hawaii, sustainability | 127 Comments

Lifting the Veil

Over the next six weeks, I will start to talk publicly about what we are putting together in Hawaii. There isn’t a specific strategic reason for doing so at this time, nor is it for the purpose of soliciting investors. The deal is that I have three speaking engagements between now and mid-November, and I believe it will be necessary to spell out the details and answer questions over our activities.

There have been very specific reasons for keeping a low profile. One is that we believe some of our technology pursuits are completely novel. We would rather not call attention to this until we have things nailed down a bit better. Another reason is that there will be specific competition for certain other technologies and biomass resources. Speaking publicly about those details could hamper our efforts.

But I can talk in broader terms about what we are doing, and I will do so at these speaking engagements. Further, in the next few days I will post some bits on my blog that will fill in some of the details.

My schedule between now and mid-November looks like this. This week, I have to go to Panama for a meeting. On the way back, I fly to San Francisco and will speak at the First Nations’ Futures Institute at Stanford University:

First Nations’ Futures Program

I will be on a panel session on October 27th with Stanford Professor Margot Gerritsen on the topics of energy and sustainability.

On November 11th, I will be on a panel at the Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy in Honolulu. The topic is Specialty Crops, Renewable Feedstocks, & Sustainability.

On November 16th, I will be on the opening plenary session at a conference in Orlando on alternative energy and globalization:

The Economics of Alternative Energy Sources and Globalization: The Road Ahead

I have received some requests since coming to Hawaii about what we are working on, and I did the first interview on that over the weekend. It is still purposely vague on some technology specifics, but the other details will be laid out as needed:

Our Holistic Approach

I say this again and again, and sometimes I can feel my co-workers wince when I say it: The primary goals here are all long-term, and as such we aren’t planning to make fast money. On the other hand, we are trying to put something together that has staying power, and that can make a real net contribution.

Additional details to follow in the next post.

October 20, 2009 Posted by | alternative energy, Hawaii, sustainability | 41 Comments

Too Many People?

It seems to be a given in many circles that the earth is overpopulated. I can see how some could come to this conclusion. There are people everywhere we look. Encroachment of suburbs into farmland, increased pollution, and the extinction of many species are just some of the reasons that there are clearly too many people on earth. When I was traveling in India last year, there were masses of people everywhere I looked. Clearly we must drastically reduce the population. That is what we are told. And you know, when someone says there are too many people, they don’t really mean themselves or their friends and family. They mean there are too many ‘other people.’ The concept of ‘too many people’ is an abstraction for most people.

A recent Christian Science Monitor addressed this issue:

Earth’s big problem: Too many people.

“You’ve got to get a president who’s got the guts to say, ‘Patriotic Americans stop at two [children],’ ” says Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University. “That if you care about your children and grandchildren, we should have a smaller population in the future, not larger.” Professor Ehrlich wrote the groundbreaking 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” which predicted disastrous effects from unchecked population growth.

Earth’s population is about 6.8 billion people today, or four times the population of a century ago. Even though birth rates are lower than during the 1960s and ’70s, the world is adding 75 million to 80 million people per year and is expected to peak at more than 9 billion by midcentury – far too many, say some population experts.

Whether this growth can be sustained and still provide a decent living standard for people is itself controversial. Some, including Ehrlich and Alan Weisman, the author of the best-selling book “The World Without Us,” argue that even today’s population is too large to maintain without ravaging the environment and creating an inhospitable planet.

The thing is, I don’t like dogma. I like data. When someone argues that we must reduce the population, but then turns around and says this I cringe:

How much would today’s population have to shrink to become sustainable? “I don’t think anybody knows,” Mr. Weisman says. “All I know is, ‘less is better.’ ”

Nobody knows? Are you serious? Shouldn’t we venture an educated guess before arguing for population reduction?

Here is the deal. If we consider the lifestyle of the average Westerner, then the earth is likely overpopulated. In my view, our present lifestyle is unsustainable. The entire world can’t consume resources at the rate of the average Westerner.

I have seen estimates that suggest that the world could sustainably hold around 2 billion people that consume as the average Westerner does (even that seems high to me) but 40 billion if the world consumes what the average African consumes. If the typical Western diet was primarily vegetarian, the carrying capacity would go up. I have seen estimates of arable land in the world between 3.5 billion and 7 billion acres. Therefore, there is around one arable acre on earth for every person on the planet. Is that enough to feed everyone? It is, with the caveat that the number of arable acres per person vary wildly from country to country. But taken as a whole, on a vegetarian diet there would appear to be enough land area to feed the population. To do it sustainably would take a lot of physical labor, though.

Of course that’s only one issue, so the answer to the question is obviously “It depends.” And I am not trying to argue in this essay that there aren’t too many people. But I don’t think we should take it as dogma that there are. Clearly we can’t continue to grow the population forever, but we may spread out to the stars and some day find that the argument has shifted to “Can the galaxy support 100 trillion humans?”

A Note on Global Warming

As some will surely point out, there are parallels between the population argument and the debate over global warming. Human-induced global warming is dogma to many, and those who question that premise are often labeled as ‘deniers’ and such. The difference for me personally is that while I believe humans are at a minimum contributing to global warming, that is not dogma for me. I do listen to the arguments, and I will move off of my position if the data warrant that.

I still have admittedly not dug deeply enough into the data on this one, but my impression remains that there is a broad consensus on this issue in the scientific community. Not being an expert myself, I defer to that unless I personally have sifted through the arguments and counter-arguments, understand them well, and have a different conclusion.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | global warming, population control, sustainability | 61 Comments

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (Starla ‘dot’ Middlebrooks ‘at’ titanwood ‘dot’ com) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | Comments Off on Carbon Sequestration in Practice

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (Starla ‘dot’ Middlebrooks ‘at’ titanwood ‘dot’ com) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | 37 Comments

Carbon Sequestration in Practice


First of its Kind: Sequestered Carbon in Sneek, the Netherlands

Back in March, I left my job with ConocoPhillips to become the Engineering Director for London-based Accsys Technologies, PLC (but my work is focused within the wholly-owned Titan Wood subsidiaries). I explained the circumstances behind my decision to switch employers here. I stated at that time that I would continue to focus my writing on energy and the environment, and not use my platform to start promoting my new company – even though it is focused on environmental technologies. I think it’s fair to say that I have kept to my word. However, I did say that at some point I would write a more extensive article on exactly what it is that my new company is doing. This is that article, with ties into energy, the environment, sustainability, and carbon capture.

A Brief Chemical Tutorial

In a nutshell, Titan Wood chemically modifies fast growing softwood species like (but not limited to) Radiata pine in a way that results in their performance characteristics being superior to some of the best tropical hardwoods such as teak. It is important to note that the modification we make is at the molecular level; we do not impregnate the wood with chemical preservatives that can leach out into the environment. Wood treatment processes like Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) fall into this latter category. Further, disposal of treated wood can be a nightmare, as many treatment processes result in the wood being classified as hazardous waste.

Following is a brief explanation of the science behind our process, in mostly layman’s terms. Wood is a very complex material, composed of many complex organic polymers (very long-chain carbon compounds). There are also numerous hydroxyl groups (OH) within wood. Think of a hydroxyl as 2/3rds of a water molecule (HOH, or H2O). Hydroxyl groups are very prone to attracting and releasing water, which is the primary mechanism by which wood shrinks and swells (and this of course makes paint crack and peel). Wood also naturally contains acetyl groups. An acetyl group is essentially an attached acetic acid molecule. Most of you are familiar with acetic acid, because you sometimes put it on your salad in the form of vinegar.


The Chemistry behind Accoya® wood

What we do in our process is remove a large fraction of those hydroxyl groups and replace them with acetyl groups. We call this wood ‘Accoya® wood’, and the properties are remarkably different than the unmodified wood we started out with. Dimensional stability, durability, and UV light resistance are all dramatically improved. Because Accoya absorbs less moisture, thermal insulating properties are also better. Further, Accoya is resistant to attack by termites, microbes, and fungi. Accoya is virtually rot-proof, and yet non-toxic.

Consider the implications. Instead of deforesting tropical rainforests for the highest quality hardwoods, we can essentially make them from trees that grow in northern climates. Wood that is grown via sustainable forestry practices and modified with our acetylation process provides a far more sustainable model for producing high-performance lumber. If the wood is both grown and used locally, so much the better.

How Accoya Sequesters Carbon

That alone is a pretty good story, but there’s more. As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. The recently released World Energy Outlook from the IEA forecast that carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion would rise from 11.7 billion metric tons in 2006 to 18.6 billion metric tons in 2030. The IEA further predicted that carbon sequestration applications will have limited potential to influence carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

If we are to slow or halt our carbon dioxide emissions, we need a combination of lower reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with commercially viable carbon sequestration, or carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. But the problem with carbon sequestration technologies is that either 1). People can’t figure out how to make money with them, so they aren’t commercialized; or 2). The carbon sequestration is fleeting.

For example, carbon dioxide can certainly be captured from the stacks of coal-fired power plants. A number of technologies will suffice, but they will all add to the cost of electricity. Estimates are that carbon capture would add 25% to the cost of producing electricity from coal. Unless large numbers of consumers are willing to pay this cost – or unless governments mandate it (and therefore mandate that consumers will pay the additional costs), adoption of these sorts of CCS technologies will face strong headwinds.

What about the use of CO2 in enhanced crude oil recovery operations? There are some applications for this, but they are limited. You must still capture and compress the CO2, and then you have to get it to the oil field. Further, that CO2 is being used to produce more oil, which will subsequently produce more CO2. A similar situation applies to the schemes for using algae to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and then turning that algae into biodiesel. While one could certainly argue that additional energy was produced for each CO2 molecule that was emitted (presuming the energy return is >1.0), at the end of the cycle the CO2 originating from the coal still ends up in the atmosphere.

However, I believe Titan Wood has a truly commercial carbon sequestration application. To my knowledge it is the best (only?) commercial solution in existence. Here is why I believe that.

You know that when a tree grows, it extracts carbon dioxide from the air, converts it via photosynthesis into various biopolymers, and stores the carbon as wood, leaves, etc. Left alone, a tree will uptake carbon dioxide as it grows, but it will eventually die and decompose, returning the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. If you could instead take the tree and just bury it deep within the earth, the carbon would be sequestered. This is in fact similar to how all of the carbon in oil, coal, and gas got sequestered in the first place. Ancient plants and animals died and were buried, and the heat and pressure of the earth turned them into fossil fuels.

Of course one can’t make money by growing trees and burying them. So, what else can you do? You could build with wood, and that also sequesters carbon during the lifetime of the application. Because Accoya is modified to resist rot, the carbon can be sequestered for much longer. That’s appealing, but it isn’t the most compelling argument. In fact, you could make that same argument about wood that is treated with toxic treatments – it can sequester carbon for a long period of time (with the obvious negative of the chemicals leeching into the environment).

No, the really compelling aspect about Accoya is that the improved characteristics make it a viable replacement for metals, plastics, and even concrete in certain applications. You can take a very fast growing tree like pine, and modify it so that it can not only replace tropical hardwoods, but it can in some instances replace the steel in a bridge. That’s where the carbon sequestration potential comes into play.

Imagine that instead of making window frames out of plastic (which comes from a fossil fuel) or aluminum (which requires a lot of electricity to produce), you made them out of Accoya. Not only have you avoided carbon emissions, but you have sequestered carbon in a long-lasting application.

Imagine that instead of constructing a bridge out of steel and concrete (both very fossil-fuel intensive), you made it out of Accoya. Again, you have avoided carbon emissions, and you have sequestered carbon. Note that neither of these scenarios is hypothetical. Accoya is currently being used in window frames, and a pair of heavy-traffic bridges is under construction right now in Sneek, the Netherlands. Kudos to the Dutch government for their foresight. The first bridge has been completed and is shown in the opening picture. (See this article for more information). Bear in mind that this bridge is certified to support 60 tons, making it the only wooden bridge in the world certified to support such a heavy load. That makes it the first of its kind.

(As an aside, in 1988 the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Bridge Initiative, to promote the use of timber in bridges. This initiative currently resides at the Forest Products Lab of the U.S. Forestry Service, but we have not yet been in contact with them regarding the possibility of building Accoya bridges in the U.S.)

What is the potential for carbon sequestration? I have done some calculations on that, shown below.

Carbon Sequestration Potential of Accoya

Per this reference:

According to analysis by JATO Dynamics, CO2 emissions in the top five markets dropped by 0.3 g/km in through the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time last year. A volume-weighted average of new cars sold in the period yielded an average of 160.5 g/km for the fleet.

That means that the average European car emits (160.5/44 g CO2/mol) = 3.65 moles CO2 per km traveled.

The density of Radiata pine is roughly 500 kg/m3. According to University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus Roger Rowell (and from other sources I have checked), carbon represents about 50% of that, or 250 kg/m3. In chemistry speak, that is (250,000 g/12 g mol) = 20,833 moles of carbon per m3 of wood, which is equal to the number of moles of carbon dioxide that were removed from the atmosphere.

Our Arnhem plant has a nameplate capacity of 30,000 m3/year of finished wood (and the next plant will be much larger). Then the carbon sequestration potential from the Arnhem plant is 20,833* 30,000 = 625 million moles of carbon per year.

Put in terms of the average European car, that means that the output of our relatively small Arnhem plant could sequester the carbon emissions of 625 million moles/(3.65 moles per km) = 171 million km of driving. The average European drives around 11,000 km/yr according to this chart. This translates to sequestration of the carbon emissions of 171 million/11,000 = 15,545 cars per year.

I am not aware of any other technology that can make this claim.

Conclusion

I believe we have a good story in Accoya. I barely scratched the surface of the advantages, which extend to painted surfaces lasting much longer (more avoided emissions, and less fossil fuels for paint manufacture). Our plans at present are to continue to manufacture Accoya in the Netherlands, and to license the technology. The second Accoya plant is being built by our licensee, Diamond Wood, in China. The third plant will be built by our licensee Al Rajhi in the Middle East. Serious discussions are taking places with other prospective licensees around the world, including several in North America.

The nameplate capacity of our first plant in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is 30,000 m3 of wood/year. This output can potentially sequester the carbon emissions of over 15,000 cars per year in Europe. The total offset is equivalent to an annual distance driven of 171 million km. Note that this presumes that we have used Accoya in an application that normally uses metal/plastics/concrete, etc. It does not take into consideration the fact that our life-cycle-assessment (LCA) shows that the energy inputs into producing concrete, steel, etc. are also higher than for producing Accoya – nor that we are avoiding the harvesting of tropical hardwoods. In other words, I believe this should be a conservative estimate.

While I have given you the technical spiel, I am not the guy to answer questions about licensing, sales, etc. If you want some information along those lines, please contact Starla Middlebrooks (here’s Starla’s e-mail address) at our Dallas offices.

Questions and (My) Answers to Various Inquiries

People have asked me lots of interesting questions around the company and the product. One sort of funny story related to this is that at this year’s ASPO conference in Sacramento, I escaped the talks a bit early to have a quick bite, as I was on an evening panel session. A few minutes later, Bob Hirsch walked in and asked if he could join me. I was delighted, and thought I would get to quiz him about The Hirsch Report. Instead, he spent the next half hour asking me all sorts of questions about Accoya. We were joined by Kjell Aleklett, and he also wanted to talk about wood. After we finished talking, I reflected on how funny it was to have the three of us sitting there, all passionate about oil depletion and energy in general, and all we talked about was wood.

Anyway, here are a few of the sorts of questions that seem to come up most frequently.

Q. Doesn’t the process itself use a lot of energy? A lot more than say, planting a tree and waiting a few years.

A. No. When you grow a tree, like a fast-growing softwood, what happens? It either grows to maturity, eventually dies, and releases its carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Or, it is cut down and used in an application that results in it releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere in much less than 100 years.

What happens with Accoya is that you can make a harvest every 20 years and put it into a long-term application. When you put it into an application that is typically aluminum or steel, you have a dual-win: It takes less energy to make Accoya, and you have sequestered carbon where you would have placed steel.

Of course you also have a big benefit by using it for applications typically reserved for tropical timber in that you displace tropical timber with softwoods.

Q. Can Accoya eventually be cost-competitive with other treated woods?

A. That depends on what you mean by cost-competitive. Is it as cheap as arsenic-treated wood? No, but arsenic-treated wood is toxic and disposal is problematic. Likewise, there are similar issues with other cheap wood treatments like pentachlorophenol, creosote, borate, etc. Accoya is no more toxic than regular wood. There is no toxic residue from the treatment.

Q. Seems ironic. Other treated wood is less likely to be burned at the end of its structural life, so the toxic wood is actually more likely to sequester carbon for more than 100 years than is the Accoya, even if the toxic wood is otherwise worse for the environment.

A. No, as that misses two key points. You touched on one in your last sentence. The reason toxic wood eventually fails is because it has leached its components out into the environment. So it continues to decompose at the landfill, albeit at a slower rate than normal wood.

But the key point is this: The acetylation treatment not only makes the wood resistance to biological attack (as do toxic treatments), but it also imparts other beneficial characteristics to the wood, which is the real bonus.

Toxic treated wood doesn’t become more dimensionally stable. A toxic-treated pine is still a softwood. An acetylated pine becomes comparable to a tropical hardwood. The durability and dimensional stability of Accoya exceeds that of teak. See here and here. Now you can go build bridges out of it, something you can’t do with the toxic treated woods. Thus, the acetylation opens up new applications, so there is much greater carbon sequestration potential.

Q. OK, I give. What’s the catch?

A. The ‘catch’ is pretty straightforward. Accoya is obviously more expensive than untreated softwood. And unless customers understand the whole story, they may opt for a cheaper, but inferior option. My job as Engineering Director is to make sure we are running our process in the most efficient manner, and therefore keeping our costs at a minimum.

The other catch is that the market for building materials is presently pretty poor, as a result of the overall economic crisis. So we are swimming upstream against that current.

Q. So are you saying that this is the solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions?

A. It can be a tool in the arsenal. It may be the only tool in the arsenal at present. (If you believe there to be other practical carbon sequestration applications, please let me know and I will amend this). To make a bigger dent in carbon emissions, we would need to start replacing more metals and plastics with Accoya (wooden refrigerators, anyone?).

You can find answers to lots of other questions in our FAQ. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming (even though I think the subject matter here is topical).

Note: As always, if you spot any errors, please call them to my attention.

December 14, 2008 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, sustainability, Titan Wood | 37 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 26 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 184 Comments

The Energy Scene in India

As I traveled through India on a recent business trip, the topic of energy was constantly on my mind (as it is every time I travel). I found out some interesting things about jatropha, toured a sugarcane ethanol plant, found a wind farm in the middle of nowhere, and encountered a native ethanol skeptic. Here are my impressions.

Ethanol in India: Another Brazil

The highlight of my trip was definitely the tour of the Sanjivani sugar cane plant near Shirdi. This could be a model to the rest of the world (with some exceptions) regarding how ethanol should be produced, as they have the entire life cycle covered.

They take in the sugarcane from local farmers, and they produce sugar. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, and they ferment that to make ethanol. Bagasse is also a by-product, and this is used to fire the boilers to provide power for the plant. The sludge waste that they produce is composted and mixed with the bagasse ash and given back to the farmers to put on their fields. As far as I can determine, this is an entirely sustainable process. But the bagasse is the key to the entire operation.

I quizzed them quite a lot about the bagasse boilers, and what I was told is that because the process produces very finely ground bagasse (I walked out of the plant covered with bagasse dust), and because the ash content in bagasse is very low – it is an ideal feed for the boilers. Very few sources of biomass fall into the category that 1). It is removed from the field as a part of the cultivation; 2). The resulting process pulverizes the biomass (not only does this make it easy to burn, but it dries easily as it passes through flue gas on the way into the boiler); and 3). The ash content is very low, minimizing maintenance of the boilers. This makes sugarcane ethanol a truly unique production method, and not something that is easily transferred to corn or cellulosic ethanol.

Not only were they making ethanol (95%; not fuel grade) but they had an entire class of ethanol derivatives that originated from the sugarcane ethanol. These derivatives included important industrial chemicals such as acetic acid, acetic anhydride (very important in my current job), acetaldehyde, and ethyl acetate.

As mentioned above, the grade of ethanol that they primarily produce is industrial grade. This differs from fuel grade for blending in that the ethanol-water azeotrope isn’t broken; the final product is 95% ethanol and 5% water. This greatly reduces the energy usage, as it takes a lot of effort to get out that last 5% water. This is in fact the concentration that Brazil primarily uses for fuel, and makes the energy balance much more favorable than using anhydrous ethanol. For blending with gasoline, it is not a good option as the water will phase out. But for dedicated ethanol vehicles, the 95% grade seems to be a reasonable option for the energy demands of many tropical countries.

In Search of the Elusive Jatropha Plant

If you are like me, when someone mentions jatropha, India immediately comes to mind. Most jatropha stories that I have seen mention India as leading the way on jatropha development. For a while, I had no reason to question these reports, but recently I started developing some doubts.

The doubts started when I was contacted by a biodiesel company in Turkey. They had shut down operations because feedstock costs had gotten too high, and they asked if I could help them find an alternative source. I asked them if they have looked into jatropha. They said they had, but weren’t able to locate anyone in India who could supply them. I thought this was odd given what I had heard about jatropha in India, so I agreed to look into it for them. I initially contacted a number of people with various Indian and biofuels connections, but nobody could point me to a concrete lead.

So one of the things I intended to do on my trip was track down that elusive jackalope, er jatropha. During my trip I asked practically everyone I met, which included a number of people involved in biofuels, and while almost everyone knew what it was, nobody could point to anyone who was actually producing it. I thought this increasingly odd, given the hype I had heard regarding jatropha and India.

Those who did know a little about jatropha in general, said that the problem is that the fertile land is being utilized to grow food (a billion people need a lot of land for food) and the marginal land typically has no roads or other infrastructure that could support a jatropha industry. While I did see a lot of seemingly marginal land as I drove around, it was pretty remote. Furthermore, I was told that jatropha requires about 3 years to produce, and not many farmers are likely to be willing to tie up their land for an extended period on an unproven crop.

So, while this doesn’t mean that there is no potential for jatropha, I left the country feeling that the jatropha situation in India has been highly overstated.

Transport: Mostly by Foot

Based on my observations, the vast majority of transport in India is by foot. I traveled pretty deeply into rural India, and almost everywhere I went there were always vast numbers of people walking along the roads. Motorcycles are abundant, and almost always have multiple passengers. At one point, I saw seven people (five of them young children) all piled onto a single motorcycle.

In cities like Bombay, auto-rickshaws are everywhere. I rode in one, and would describe it as essentially like a motorcycle with a light-weight body built around it. Interestingly, the one I rode in (maybe all of them are like this) ran off of compressed natural gas. Speaking of which, there were a lot of alternative fuel vehicles in Bombay. I saw many CNG vehicles, and a taxi I rode in once was fueled by a propane tank in the trunk.

A Wind Farm and an Ethanol Skeptic

At one point we were driving through a very remote area, and suddenly a wind farm appeared. I took some photos. The farm appeared to be very distant from any cities, so I am not sure about how cost effective it was in that location.

One thing I didn’t expect to encounter was an ethanol skeptic, but at one of the meetings we had, (following my questions about jatropha), our host told me that “ethanol for biofuel is India’s greatest threat.” I asked why, and he said he feared that 1). The demand in the West for biofuel will result in a food versus fuel competition; and 2). That increased ethanol demand would put more pressure on India’s already serious water problem.

Food

During the week in India, I had meat twice. The total I had was about 3 ounces. I would have guessed that I would be constantly starving, but the food is very filling, and very good. I haven’t had vegetarian like that in the West. At a typical meal, I would have a carbohydrate (usually a flat bread), a vegetable, and a protein. Rice is always part of the meal. But the meals were very nutritious and healthy, so I plan to incorporate some of these meals into my normal diet.

My host (and Bombay native) Kapil Girotra informed me that India is self-sufficient in food. He also told me that 70% or so of the population is vegetarian, which means it requires less land to feed them. However, on the other hand, I saw a very large portion of the population that certainly is not getting enough to eat. So you might say that they are barely self-sufficient. They do produce enough food to feed their population, but some of that population is undernourished.

The Poverty

The poverty in India is just stunning. We don’t have anything to compare it to in the West. The people that would be considered very poor in the West have it far better than the poor in India. They are literally starving to death. I once asked what happens if someone has a medical emergency in the slums. “If they have money, they live. If not, they die.” I just imagined a child getting hit with something incredibly painful like renal colic (and believe me, it is excruciating) and not being able to get help. I can’t imagine the strain on a parent going through that. I think I would rather have a finger chopped off. Seriously.

I think in the West we just tune it out when we see it on TV. But you can’t tune it out when you drive by mile after mile after mile of people living essentially in garbage dumps. I think we treat our unwanted pets in the West with more concern than we have for a starving 2-year-old half way around the world. I was frequently asked what I was thinking about, and once I replied “What it would be like to have everyone in India experience a little of America, and everyone in America come see this.”


A Familiar Site in Bombay

The Traffic

It really isn’t accurate to call it traffic. It is more appropriate to say that chaos reigns on the roads. It’s just a free-for-all out there. I would never recommend that a Westerner rent a car and attempt to drive. You will spend all of your time in a state of confusion, and you will hold up traffic while you try to figure out what to do. The constant honking (in lieu of signaling) was unnerving. For me, Hell would be having to be a cab driver in Bombay for all eternity.


Sitting in an Auto Rickshaw

The roads are shared by people, bikes, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, and cars. I frequently observed traffic going the wrong direction, and it was quite normal to have someone turn directly across your path. We had drivers who took us from place to place, and they would pass people on blind curves and hills, and sometimes they even passed someone in the act of passing someone else. I don’t think we have a proper frame of reference in the West for the “traffic” in India; especially in the big cities. (And of course this means a constant haze hung over Bombay while I was there, which presumably gets scrubbed during the monsoon season).

The People

The population density is something else. I once wondered aloud just how many people I had seen on this trip. Kapil, the guy I was traveling with, said “Probably a good fraction of all the people you have ever seen in your life.” That is not an exaggeration. We traveled around the country, and with very few exceptions there were people lining the streets everywhere. Several times I would observe a crowd and wonder what was going on, but there was nothing going on. It was just a crowd. But it looked like a constant stream coming out of a major sporting event.

Despite the crowded conditions, I only saw violence once – when a man tried to drag another out of a car after a wreck. The people seem to cope quite well. Crime doesn’t seem to be nearly the problem you might expect in a city that size.

But with that many people comes a great deal of garbage. There was trash everywhere, and most of the time you could smell rotting garbage. One night we stayed well north of the city, but every once in a while my room would fill up with a garbage smell. I presumed the wind had shifted from Bombay.

Travel

It takes forever to get anywhere. You look at a place, and think “It’s only 100 miles.” 3 hours later, you still aren’t there. We spent 20 hours on the road over the course of 4 days. They don’t have rest stops and such with facilities that I could see. But the people I was traveling with never needed them. We would spend 7 hours in the car and never stop for a bathroom break. Needless to say, I limited my water intake on the trip, as I found that bathrooms were treated as a precious commodity. On a couple of occasions when I was in a meeting, I asked for the restroom and found someone standing outside of it, and a sign that said “VIPs and guests only.”

I traveled by train as well. It isn’t for everyone. If you like hot, sweaty bodies packed in like sardines (and that’s in 1st Class), then go for it. It took us an hour to get to our destination, and during that ride there were constantly people hanging out of the open doors, and it was standing room only. I wondered whether the people in 2nd Class were stacked like cord wood.

Conclusions

India was an eye-opening experience for me. I managed not to get sick while I was there, and I credit my host Kapil for his constant advice on what I should and shouldn’t eat and drink. (I don’t recommend the buffalo milk, by the way). The contrasts were amazing. Outside a cluster of $400/night hotels was the worst poverty I have ever seen. I once saw a guy pulling a hand cart and talking on a cell phone. Houses in the slums had satellite dishes on top of them. A number of times we walked down hallways of buildings that looked to be 100 years old and decrepit, and then stepped into one of the most modern offices you have ever seen.

One of the things this trip has done for me is to highlight the importance of efforts to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle and avoid the kind of collapse that is often discussed in relation to Peak Oil. I think if more people understood just how far society could fall – and I saw that in the slums of India – we could get serious about our energy situation in a big hurry.

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Brazilian ethanol, ethanol, India, Peak Oil, sugarcane ethanol, sustainability | 27 Comments