The elevated intensity of wildfire seasons in the American West combined with political, environmental, and economic issues surrounding the use of coal and oil are spurring a growing interest in the use of woody biomass as a fuel for heating and electrical generation.
David Nicholls, a forest products technologist at the Alaska Wood Utilization Research and Development Center in Sitka, along with his colleagues, have researched the feasibility of using woody biomass from many angles: the potential supply of wood; the economics of gathering, transporting, and processing it; the use of biomass in electrical generation around the world; and small-scale niche projects in rural communities—especially in Alaska.
U.S. forests have a vast supply of woody debris and small-diameter trees that could be used as fuel in a number of applications, big and small. Harvesting it could provide fuel for heat and electricity, and would reduce the amount of flammable material in the forests—lessening the potential of wildfire. The trick is making it economically feasible to do so.
Currently, the cost of recovering biomass from the forests and making it available for use is more expensive than the resulting fuel. Terrain, accessibility, travel distances, and processing costs are all factors. But, technological improvements and consumer demand could tip the balance in wood’s favor, making it a viable competitor with other renewable energy sources.
Past issues of Science Findings are available here >>