Conference brings several biomass topics to light

By Jessica Sobolik | May 09, 2008
More than 800 people traveled to Minneapolis for the International Biomass Conference & Trade Show to hear the latest possibilities and challenges facing the biomass industry as a source of fuel, heat and chemicals.

The event, hosted by BBI International Inc. with support from the Grand Forks, N.D.-based Energy & Environmental Research Center, started with opening comments from EERC Director Gerald Groenewold, who pointed out, "I have a problem with the term energy independent.' We'll never get there, but we will wake up one day and wonder, What were we thinking [in terms of energy use]?'"

The event didn't shy away from the tough issues facing biomass. A panel discussion on sustainability with David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, Lee Lynd of Dartmouth College and Nathanael Green of the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that using the world's best farmland to grow biomass for fuel can lead to indirect land use changes that accelerate global warming and increase competition for food worldwide. "Economics and ethics will likely mean that our best land will go to food production with ag residue and dedicated energy crops like mixed prairie grasses grown on degraded land going to biofuels," Tilman said.

An international panel highlighted biomass utilization in Argentina, Canada, India and Europe, particularly Poland. Another panel discussion focused on climate change issues, which can spur more biomass use. For example, burning coal, which has more British thermal units, emits the most carbon into the atmosphere. Wood, although cheap, still isn't the cleanest biomass resource. Panelists discussed the many biomass options, including grasses, ag residues, municipal solid waste and more. A feature in the July issue of Biomass Magazine will delve into the energy and emissions of these various biomass sources.

Concurrent breakout sessions covered various areas of interest in more detail, while two site tours allowed conference attendees to see some of the latest biomass concepts in action. District Energy St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn., is burning wood waste to produce energy for city buildings, while various laboratories on the University of Minnesota campus are exploring algae, bio-oil and other biomass-based energy sources.

Next year's event will be held in Portland, Ore., on April 28-30.