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Fill 'er up with ... biomass?

Published March 8, 2004

A professor explores the potential of renewable fuel

A Dartmouth engineering professor is one of the leaders of a national project to explore the practicality of switching from traditional sources of energy to renewable sources.

Lee Lynd examines a bacteria culture.
Lee Lynd examines a bacteria culture. He and other experts study organic matter for possible use as automobile fuel. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Lee Lynd, Thayer School Professor of Engineering, studies plant biomass - agricultural leftovers, grass crops, paper pulp and yard waste - as a large-scale alternative fuel. The project, called "The Role of Biomass in America's Energy Future" (RBAEF), had its first public meeting on Feb. 23 in Washington, D.C.

"The overall goal of the RBAEF project is to investigate whether it is both feasible and desirable for biomass-derived energy to play a major role in the U.S.," Lynd said, "and if so, what should be done to accelerate its use, and in what timeframe could the associated benefits be realized? This project is unprecedented in terms of the diversity of the participants, the breadth of technologies to be considered, and the forward-looking character of the analysis."

Those diverse participants include leaders Lynd and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private membership organization. The project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Energy Foundation, another private organization, and the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP), also a private organization.

The project is organized into two components. The first, funded by DOE, addresses technical analysis; the second, funded by the Energy Foundation and NCEP, targets environmental and policy analysis. Additional participants with central roles in the project include Princeton University, Michigan State University, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

Among other issues, the project will address what Lynd sees as a significant barrier to transitioning the U.S. economy over to this renewable, sustainable energy source: the lack of consensus and understanding about the feasibility of biomass as a significant, long-term fuel for the transportation sector.

"For example," Lynd said, "there is a widespread perception that we do not have viable alternatives to our current dependence on imported oil. But we are working now on realistic scenarios where the entire demand for light- and heavy-duty vehicles is met from land already allocated to agriculture."

Lynd said he remains concerned with the overall trend of low federal investment in energy research and development, as well as private-sector investments, which have been falling since the mid-1980s.

"A key message of our project is that we do have alternatives, and that we could be pursuing these much more aggressively and effectively than we are," he said.

By CATHARINE LAMM

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08