Growing up on the farm or ranch often meant spending cold winter mornings warming up in front of a fireplace after first braving the cold porch or trip to the wood stack for fresh logs to get warm up the morning.
For some--and many might say the really lucky (and older rural baby boomers)--Thanksgiving dinner was often served up hot right after basking in the glow and smoke flavor of a wood burning cook stove and oven, a rare treat in the modern world.
But much has changed over the last 60 years. Roaring fires and smoked-filled chimneys have fallen to the wayside thanks to modern invention, with gas and electric furnaces replacing even pellet stoves and open-face gas heaters. Electric, gas, induction and microwave cooking have all but taken the cast iron out of the kitchen. New and more efficient energy sources and systems have placed cobwebs on the face of wood-fueled fires, relegated now to distant memories.
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It's no secret that in recent years the search for alternative energy has doubled down with researchers looking at such things as bio-fuels, wind energy, and more unusual possibilities to power America's homes and engines. Cutting edge technology is suggesting that one day we may depend on such odd energy sources as sugar to power our laptops, bacteria to run our cars, and decomposing biological carcasses to heat our buildings.
But as the search for new energy material progresses, a few research projects have been concentrating on some old standards like, perhaps surprisingly, wood waste.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack greeted Alaska Airlines flight AS-4 passengers, arriving from Seattle, at Washington Reagan National Airport earlier this month, signifying the first commercial airline flight powered in part by a new renewable fuel made of wood.
While environmentalists and other supporters of conservation would warn us of cutting down more trees to develop wood as a viable energy source, researchers at Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) is betting on the promise that cellulose-rich, discarded wood products that could be a viable renewable fuel source instead of going to waste. They have devised a way to use wood waste without increasing the need for more wood resources.
Their effort represents the culmination of five years of work funded by a $39.6 million research and education project supported by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Launched in 2011, NARA has advanced research into biofuels and biochemicals, fostered the Northwest regional biofuel industry and helped educate tomorrow's workforce on renewable energy.
"In 2011, USDA awarded our largest-ever competitive research grant to the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, betting on the promise that cellulose-rich, discarded wood products could be a viable renewable fuel source instead of going to waste. Today, we are able to celebrate the results of that investment, which is a major advancement for clean alternatives to conventional fossil fuels," Vilsack said shortly after passengers deplaned following touchdown in Washington.
The demonstration flight used a 20 percent blend of jet fuel made from cellulose derived from limbs and branches that typically remain on the ground after the harvesting of sustainably managed private forests, known as harvest residuals. Cellulose, the main component of wood, is the most abundant material in nature and has long been a subject of investigation for producing sustainable biofuels.
The harvest residuals used to make fuel for this flight came from forests owned by Weyerhaeuser in Washington and Oregon, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington, and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana. The biofuel used is chemically indistinguishable from regular commercial jet fuel.
"USDA has invested $332 million to accelerate cutting-edge research and development on renewable energy, making it possible for planes, ships and automobiles to run on fuel made from municipal waste, beef fat, agricultural byproducts and other low-value sources. All of this creates extra income sources for farmers and ranchers, is bringing manufacturing jobs back to rural America, and is keeping our country at the forefront of clean energy and innovation. We must continue to focus on targeted investments to help the rural economy retool itself for the 21st century," Vilsack added.
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In addition to producing 1,080 gallons of biofuel used for the flight, other key tasks of the NARA project included evaluating the economic, environmental and societal benefits and impacts associated with harvesting unused forest residuals for biofuel production.
Alaska Airlines estimates that if it were able to replace 20 percent of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with biofuel, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of CO2. This is equivalent to taking approximately 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.