Ethanol from Trees: A Different Kind of Renewable Resource

Most everyone has heard of ethanol from corn, but what about ethanol from trees? That's what Colorado-based ZeaChem, Inc. are planning to do with a new plant opening in Boardman, Oregon. The plant, which will produce 250,000 gallons of ethyl acetate (the precursor to cellulosic ethanol) annually, is funded with the help of government grants and will begin production in 2011.

Ethanol can be fermented from most fibrous plants, including trees and straw. The plant in Boardman intends to harvest the surrounding area's poplar population instead of the traditional and more well-known method of using corn.

According to a recent article in the Seattle Times, the development and production of cellulosic ethanol (ethanol from trees) has seen a sharp rise in popularity. Most importantly, it allows for the production of ethanol without directly using what may otherwise be a food source (corn). The technology has seen support from both President's Bush and Obama.

Inside ZeaChem's Boardman, Oregon plant

The Boardman plant is not the first of it's kind. A similar plant opened in Wyoming last summer. The plant, which uses pine chips to ferment ethanol, capitalized on the $49 million dollars of stimulus dollars the Obama administration allocated to the growing industry. A different plant opened even earlier in February of 2007 in Louisiana.

Though this new technology does avoid some of the issues that plague corn-based ethanol, it is still met with harsh criticism. First, it's extremely expensive to construct the production plants as well as maintain their day-to-day operations. Second, its production, in its current capacity, requires an enormous amount of fossil fuels - from transportation to machinery. Third, though using trees to create ethanol does not directly waste a food source, it uses valuable farmland that could otherwise go towards the production of food. Most importantly, an extremely large amount of ethanol would be required to make a significant dent in the current levels of fossil fuel consumption. This means building large amounts of plants, which takes even more money, uses even more farmland, and burns even more fossil fuel.

What do you think, is this new type of ethanol the way to go? Does it solve most of the issues surrounding corn-based ethanol? Is it worth the costs? Is this going to be a key fuel for the future? Share your thoughts below...

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