Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grass to Gas

As one travels through the South, the incredibly invasive species known as Kudzu is everywhere. If you have never been in the South and have never seen Kudzu, then you cannot imagine the havoc that this plant is causing on the landscape and the environment. When I say everywhere, I mean hanging from the trees, power lines, buildings, road signs, and even cars that are parked too long will soon disappear from sight as the vine crawls relentlessly forward. This stuff is unstoppable. It can grow over a foot a day and up to sixty feet a year and it will eat anything in its path. If you cut it down, two plants will spring up in its place. First introduced to the U.S. in 1876, the planting of this non-indigenous species was actually encouraged by the Soil Conservation Service from 1935 until the 1950’s when it was discovered that we had unleashed a monster. It now covers over 7 million acres of land in this country and will soon cover millions of acres more.

As we gazed upon this vast sea of bio-mass that not only needs to be removed, but is free for the taking, we wondered if Kudzu was a viable material for making cellulosic ethanol. A little research on the internet led us to Agro*Gas, a small company in Cleveland, TN that has not only looked at it as a source of feedstock, but has developed the technology to make it work. A few days later we were able to speak with Tom Monahan, one of the principles in the company, and an expert on bio-fuels.

Tom is passionate about the subject of bio-fuels, and we quickly discovered that he sees a future in which his grandchildren can still enjoy the same quality of life as we, but without the damage to the environment. Tom sees biomass every where, and Agro*Gas has developed a proprietary method for extracting the sugars needed to produce ethanol from a wide variety of feed stocks. The problem is, there is currently no money coming to these types of projects. Somewhere along the line, the powers that be decided that corn based ethanol was the way of the future. For those of you familiar with the story of corn in this country, and its complete control by the likes of Monsanto, Du Pont, and Cargill, this will come as no surprise. Apparently using readily available bio-mass that does not depend on genetically modified seeds, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, makes absolutely no sense at all.

Tom also made it clear the unlike the corn ethanol industry, his company not only does not seek government subsidies and financing, they abhor the thought. They have what they believe is a viable technology for producing economically feasible bio-fuels from a variety of feed stocks, and they will be damned if they will let the government get their hands on it and completely screw it into the ground like they have done with everything else. To be truly economically feasible, this technology needs to stand on its own, without the need for subsidies that support so many of the so-called “alternative” energy programs in this country. It’s amazing, they actually believe that if you don’t have a system that can stand on its own and start to make money from the get-go you don’t actually have a viable business model. In this day and age it is rare to see this kind of entrepreneurial spirit.

What really makes the Agro*Gas system different is that it is designed to work using almost any bio-mass feedstock for its input. Corn ethanol plants, upon which we have spent billions of dollars in research and subsidies, are designed to run on one thing and one thing only, corn. Corn is food, and unless you are someone like Cargill who will profit immensely from the process, the idea of turning food into fuel when there are millions of tons of non-food bio-mass just waiting to be used is insanity. The Agro*Gas process can turn almost any type of agricultural waste of which there are many and most of which the producers actually pay to have hauled away, into fuel.

In addition to fuel, much like the “cracking” process that turns a barrel of oil into everything from cosmetics to plastic bags, Agro*Gas sees fuel as only a small part of the chain of products that can be produced by the breakdown of cellulosic feed stocks. They are actively pursuing many by-products of the bio-fuel process that may be commercially viable. Indeed much like gasoline that was burned off as a waste product by the early refineries in this country, the fuel side of the process is actually not the center point of the production. There are a variety of products that can be produced from this process that can contribute to a commercially viable process. The entire business model revolves around small regional plants that can turn local produced bio-mass into regionally consumed products. This is Buy Local-Use Local defined.

Tom let us know that they realize that they may not get rich from their process, but they firmly believe that it is the right thing to do. Based on our evaluation of anything that bucks the trend of big business or government, and takes on the Cargill’s and Monsanto’s of this world, we would wholeheartedly agree with them that they will not get rich. Most probably they will get delegated into the realm of good ideas whose time will never come because it makes too much sense. It is our hope that the Richard Branson’s and the T. Boone Pickens of the world will recognize the difference between the world that Cargill creates, and the world of the sustainable future, and step up to the plate and actually make a difference.

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