NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Biomass: Garbage In, Fuel Out

November 2, 1999

The federal government has spent almost 50 years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to turn garbage into gasoline, but its "biomass" fuels never really took off.

Now, at least four commercial ventures are gearing up to make gasoline substitutes from corn stalks, rice straw and bagasse -- the waste fibers left over after the juice is squeezed out of sugar cane.

  • Iogen Corp. is building a refinery in Ottawa to begin producing ethanol from corn stalks as early as this spring.
  • A Massachusetts company, BC International Corp., is modifying a Louisiana refinery to produce ethanol from bagasse -- and use a chemical byproduct as a fuel to run the refinery.
  • Arkenol Inc., a California company, intends to process rice straw into ethanol to be blended into gasoline.
  • Masada Resource Group, located in Alabama, has a contract with the town of Middletown, N.Y., to produce ethanol out of sewage sludge and organic waste gleaned from the city's garbage.

Only about 3 percent of the nation's energy is derived from biomass at present -- nearly all of it ethanol derived from corn or from burning wood. But these new technologies rely on what was once considered waste.

Bagasse has always presented a disposal problem to sugar cane interests. Rice farmers traditionally got rid of rice straw by burning it in their fields. But those in California can no longer do so because of environmental laws. Masada sees its process, which has been around since biblical times as a "refuse elimination system."

Source: John J. Fialka, "The New Alchemy: Turning Garbage into Fuel," Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1999.


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