Going a Step Further: Turning Wood Into Gas

THE rapid improvement in wood stove technology may have an important, lasting impact on electrical grids.

``The future for wood and other biomass energy forms lies in getting much more efficient conversion technology going,'' says George Sterzinger, a technical adviser to the National Wood Energy Association.

The ``conversion'' Mr. Sterzinger refers to is turning wood, or other plant life, into gas that can be used to power jet turbines and generate electric current. Currently, he points out, the only way to employ wood or crop waste to produce electricity is to fire up a boiler - a highly inefficient process.

Organizations ranging from the World Bank to General Electric are involved in the search for economical ways of making the conversion to gas, Sterzinger says. The process has two main stages: putting the wood or other biomass through a ``gasifier'' and then cleaning up the gas so it is pure enough to run a turbine. Completing the second stage economically still presents some tough problems, Sterzinger says.

But in his view, the payoff could be substantial. The process could help farmers make economic use of fallow land to grow ``energy'' crops, such as switchgrass or certain kinds of poplars, and cut reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels.

Available biomass resources range from the rice straw normally burnt off in northern California to the waste wood that clogs many northeastern forests. ``If you can pay $15 to $20 a ton for salvaged wood to use it for biomass energy production,'' Sterzinger says, ``it becomes an industry, and what was a problem becomes an economic resource.''

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