Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Farming Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

Here is the second article in my series on alternative farming and food systems. My first article was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. This time I focus on military veterans and farming for Newsweek. Here’s an excerpt:

Evan Premer, a 15-year veteran of the Army National Guard, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Evan Premer, an Army National Guard veteran, grows food in a greenhouse for his business, Dirtless Farm, in Colorado. Becoming a farmer has helped Premer manage his PTSD. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Farmers Could Save Veterans, and Vice Versa

By Sena Christian

Mornings are the hardest for Evan Premer, although nights aren’t much easier. His sleep, wracked with nightmares of war and violence, has no consistent pattern, so he often wakes up feeling tired and overwhelmed. But he does have a game plan for feeling better: Once he rises from bed, he hits the road, turning up the music in his Jeep on his drive to a greenhouse in the small town of Firestone, Colorado. Here he feels more relaxed, listening as water hydrates his plants. There are no cubicle walls or phones ringing or colleagues arguing. This is the office that works for him.

Premer, who is now 36, served 15 years in the military, most recently as a Colorado Army National Guardsman in Iraq. In basic training, he and his fellow soldiers were taught to only show strength. “You never let the enemy see your weaknesses,” he says. “And that’s why I’m so broken today.” When Premer returned from the Middle East in 2007, he studied photography in college for a while. But the strobes and flashing lights he had to use triggered bad memories of his time in war, so he gave it up.

Richard Murphy is program manager of the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Richard Murphy is program manager of Veterans to Farmers in Colorado. (Photo by Cole Allen).

Premer manages his post-traumatic stress disorder by growing food. About two years ago, he and his mother started a business, now called Dirtless Farm, growing microgreens, baby greens and culinary herbs for local restaurants. Premer had previously trained at Circle Fresh Farms in Denver, which is run by an ex-Marine, Buck Adams, who also founded the nonprofit Veterans to Farmers. At Circle Fresh, Premer learned about aeroponic production, a space-saving system where vegetables are grown out of vertical towers year-round, with no soil and little water. He can grow all sorts of produce, from vine plants like tomatoes, strawberries and eggplants to leafy greens and herbs.

He might also help save American farming. The average U.S. farmer or rancher is 58 years old, and many of them will soon retire. Most of these farmers don’t have a succession plan for their business or land, and that lack of planning makes farmland more vulnerable to development, and small-scale family farms easier for corporations to gobble up. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is calling for at least 100,000 new farmers in the coming years.

… Read the rest of the article here …

My Upcoming Adventure

It’s official! I’ve been named a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. I’ll be in Boulder, Colorado, reporting on the growth of small-scale sustainable farms in the American west and their role in transforming domestic food systems. Here’s the press release with information on my fellow, um, fellows.

Boulder, Colorado. Beautiful!