Sunday, July 15, 2007


When forests meet industrialization, they lose and along with the loss go the noble woodland professions in a romantic mist. Deep ecologists like Gary Snyder make us aware that this loss is unacceptable and at least on post-industrial Turtle Island forests are making a bit of a comeback. So, if you can work with the strengthening poison ivy you have more opportunities to get close to the forest floor and look at the various kinds of fungi that grow there.

The cursed report we have been anticipating is due out this week and since it seems that its conclusions have been predetermined since at least February it should come as no surprise at all that we'll be hearing that we can make poison ivy even itchier to our heart's content. So, with plentiful ghost energy sources and constant attacks on the idea that their use is dangerous we might think that an effort to replace ghost energy with real energy from forests would be completely pointless. But, these grave robbers have shown themselves to be untrustworthy so checking up on them makes some sense.

Dave Rutledge at Caltech, has tried to compare what they say with what they do to try understand just how much more carbon dioxide can be added to the atmosphere if we try just about as hard as we are trying now. His talk attempts to figure out what profile of emissions should be used when calculating the amount of temperature and sea level rise we might expect in the next 400 years. Based on the way that ghost energy companies have actually behaved rather than on what they say they can do, he finds that none of the scenarios used in the climate reports we have been following seem realistic because they all over estimate the amount of carbon available to further pollute the atmosphere. If his analysis is accurate, then this is pretty good news on the climate front, we just barely avoid the so-called dangerous climate change through no effort of our own. All of the economists will have to revise their models, but they would have needed to do that anyway because they have, for the most part, missed the prosperity real energy sustains.

Dave's analysis, like the ones we have already looked at that point in this direction, will need more checking but we can see a little motivation for looking to the forests for fuel. Now, just as in Brazil, the issue of cutting forests to make fuel needs careful attention. The new effort in Georgia intends to use forest products that are produced anyway in the lumber and paper industries there. They are competing (at the industrial level) with a method that uses enzymes to accomplish the same goal. So far, the enzyme method is pretty expensive, while the method to be used in Georgia could be considered wasteful since so much heat is needed to turn the wood waste into a gas. Both processes involve restrictive intellectual property. If Dave's analysis is correct, we may want to get this sort of thing going faster than patents might allow. So, I'm going to throw this out into the public domain:

The enzymes needed to break down wood or straw are naturally occurring is some kinds of fungi. Lentinus tigrinus in particular can grow quickly in straw because of the enzymes it produces. A mushroom is mostly protein but it also contains fiber and carbohydrate, the last of which is fermentable. So, one could produce protein from straw or sawdust and at the same time draw off the carbohydrates to produce fuel. A bit of reprocessing of the fiber may also yield further fuel. The process might even be made recursive. Most importantly, they do not require any extra sunlight, so they do not compete for real energy input. The fungi can be grown in old mines or in tall buildings so that forests or hay fields that collect the real energy need not be displaced to process the real energy. Suppose you have an unused 40 ft silo with a 14 ft diameter. You rig it up so that an interior scaffold can hold growing trays that pack at a typical square bale density leaving a similar space for fruiting. Then you can use the hay from a single cutting of about 16 acres to grow a mushroom crop. But since the mushrooms mature in under 15 days, you can do four crops before the next hay cutting. So a single silo of this size can service 60 acres or more if the silo use is extended past the hay growing season. Compared to about 8 ton of carbohydrate per acre per year for corn, we might expect about 1 ton of carbohydrate per acre per year (three cuttings) but the protein yield will be a bit larger than for corn and without a high nitrogen fertilizer input. The used mushroom mash should have a good value as chicken, hog or fish feed. (Talapia scraps can be used to make biodiesel.) To get started though, making a portion of the crop gastronomic would help to pay for the scaffolding costs. At about a dollar per pound wholesale, mushrooms easily beat corn on price even at $4 per bushel by factor of 1.5 adjusting for yield.

Cellulosic ethanol with no intellectual property to slow down implementations. Maybe Gary will write us another mushroom poem to celebrate.

"So here's to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man."

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