Continuing on the idea of agricultural wastes, we move to pyrolysis, a term used to describe the conversion of biomass (and non-biological waste products, as well) into constituent elements by exposing it to moderate temperatures (~500ºC) in the absence of oxygen for short periods of time (fast pyrolysis). Though general research on pyrolysis has been going on for some time now, efforts to harness this natural phenomenon for energy production are just getting underway.
Agri-Therm, a Canadian company, has developed a machine of particular interest for farmers and foresters, both in the industrial and developing world. Their mobile pyrolysis machine can be used to process agricultural and forestry waste products, with minimal CO2 emissions, into three constituent elements: gas, bio-oil, and solid residue. Bio-oil can be used as a fuel in tractors, automobiles, and any other combustion based machinery, while the solid residue could be used as a fertilizer/soil amendment, or possibly as a substrate for mycoculture. The gas byproduct is useful for drying out agricultural wastes as they are prepared for pyrolysis. Integration with greenhouse technology is another possibility.
The small size of the pyrolysis machine makes it suitable for Third World applications, and the fact that its mobile leaves room for innovative entrepreneurs to develop service-based businesses where farmers are given the opportunity to process their wastes into fuel for a small fee, or fuel can be sold to other interested parties. Thus far, serious economic studies of small-scale pyrolysis have yet to materialize. But, the best way to find out this type of information is to try it out in real world situations.
As I’m beginning to discover, commercial applications in renewable energy are lagging far behind our scientific and engineering capabilities as a global civilization. The United States is far behind Europe, China and even Brazil in this regard, and short of a political miracle and unequivocal voter outrage, we will surely be surpassed by other nations in our ability to develop and deploy renewable, carbon-neutral energy solutions. That said, the problems and promises of renewables are moving well beyond the increasingly arbitrary borders of the nation-state as the world tries to find a unified and global solution to the very global problem of climate change.