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Forestry Prof Says Corn Ethanol Plan Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Posted March 19, 2007

— With gas prices on the rise and interest in alternative fuels rising along with them, researchers at N.C. State University are trying to grow solutions, like turning trees into ethanol.

Corn has gotten the biggest buzz in ethanol discussions, but Dr. Vincent L. Chiang has landed a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to pursue his idea of tree ethanol.

“Corn is not enough, and the problem is not whether corn is a good material to make ethanol or not, There's simply just not enough. We need all kinds of plant material, says Chiang, a professor of forestry and co-director of the school’s Forest Biotechnology Group.

The idea is to make a new breed of tree that grows faster to produce more fuel. The trees in Chiang’s NC State greenhouse have grown over 4 feet in four months.

“It's a better breed of tree so that it can produce more raw material, cellulose. Then the cellulose can be made into glucose, which is then fermented into ethanol,” Chiang explained.

The experiments are going on while other research on ethanol continues. Chiang says he's waiting for advances in ethanol conversion before trying to get his idea on the commercial market.

A conventional pulp tree needs 10 to 15 years to be ready to harvest. Chiang's cellulose-yielding variety is mature in two to three years.

He said he has heard from critics who don't like the idea of cutting down trees for fuel, or who don't like the idea of genetically altering trees.

“What they don't understand is we would produce our specific type of tree on a tree farm, a fiber farm or ethanol farm. We would always be rotating our crop and leave the natural variations alone,” Chiang says.

Some have referred to Chiang’s project as "Woodstock revisited," a reference to the 1969 music festival. He takes it as a compliment.

“I was born in that age, the Woodstock age, so actually, I like that very much,” he says.


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  • thefensk Mar 20, 2007

    I wonder why they can't explore the possiblity of converting pest plants like kudzu. You want quck growing? heh.

  • hemp4victory Mar 20, 2007

    tbajr -at- aol -dot- com : I'm with you , most people, through no fault of their own, have absolutely no idea of the economic value of hemp and it's many industial / pharmacutical uses that have been put aside in favor of more expensive, more dangerous and less efficient products and of course more and more expensive research, The research has been done ,, It's time to de-criminalize HEMP... Hemp for Victory

  • WXYZ Mar 20, 2007

    This idea sounds very good to me. Many good points. Super fast growing trees--make tons of oxygen and absorb tons of Carbon Dioxide while they grow. They collect and store energy from the sun, which is ultimately converted into fuel. Wow! A potentially endless source of energy.

  • independent-opinion Mar 20, 2007

    jmurach- check out Tesla Motors, the next generation electric car is here. They are even looking at Burlington, NC for the production facility for their sedan (comming soon).

  • OK so Scream Already Mar 20, 2007

    I personally think EVERYONE is barking up the wrong tree so to speak, because in the USA we make more waste than anywhere in the world. We don't need to grow fuel, but we need to figure out how to take the waste cellulose and make fuel. Look at landfills, the ever growing compost pile, and algae and hey did I mention garbage?

    Waste to energy is what we need, and a whole lot less money spent on "research to grow trees". I know everyone has their idea, but really people if everyone would be more conservative, and a whole lot less wasteful then maybe we can find an alternative.

    However, since we are so wasteful - let's get in on the waste to energy conversion and make things happen. 5 pounds of trash per day per person, well I think there is your fuel source!

  • jmurach Mar 20, 2007

    What ever happened to the electric car? oooohhhhh the government put a stop to it :o)

  • tbajr Mar 20, 2007

    It is time to bring the "Hemp" plant back to be used for mans
    service as it was intended. Government has used it illegally
    for the past forty or so years for their purpose of expanding
    and enslaving those was use it. It is a gift to mankind and
    no law/man can deny another the use of it. Those who don't
    don't agree - take your case to the Supreme Being!!

  • Get a clue Mar 20, 2007

    Those plants in the picture look rather suspicious to me. If you don't inhale it doesn't count there Mr Scientist. Have they thought about making ethanol from wacky tobacky??

  • Chemgrad Mar 19, 2007

    Ethanol is significantly better than coal or oil hmmm just based on the facts of decreased emissions, however corn is not the way to go. Brazil has completely switched from oil to ethanol by using sugarcane as their source. The main issue with ethanol now is that cars for the most part are designed to run off 87 octane gasoline (for those unaware the higher the octane the more the fuel can be compressed before detonation). Ethanol is circa 115 on the octane scale and therefore our vehicle engines need to increase their compression ratio to truly benefit from burning ethanol. There are several methods for generating electricity which are promising including the using of wave farms. Hey truth how would you feel about a nuclear waste laden Challenger?? That's the reason why that method isn't plausible.

  • Angry Independent Mar 19, 2007

    Ethanol ain't all that. It's a wasteful by-product of feel-good politics and tax subsidies. We're better off with oil, or coal even. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/031128.html