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Can organic waste become the nation's next big power source?
In theory, using cellulosic biomass makes a lot of sense. Take what would otherwise be waste or animal feed--agricultural and forestry residues, recycled paper, and other organic waste--treat them with acid and the right enzymes, and create relatively clean-burning ethanol and other byproducts. In doing so, there would be less landfill, pollution, and a reduced national dependence on oil, more than 55 percent of which comes from overseas.
In reality, while the apparent energy crisis has made so-called cellulosic biomass technologies more attractive, the industry, like that of other renewable fuels, including wind and solar power, continues to face scientific, political, and economic hurdles--as it has for years. "We're still treated as a marginal industry," says Katherine Hamilton, co-director of the industry advocacy group the American Bioenergy Association, referring to all renewables. "We're not at the table with coal and oil and gas and nukes. We're a way to make [legislators] look good, but not really do anything."
As with researchers and advocates in other renewable fuels areas, those involved in cellulosic biomass have gotten mixed signals from the federal government, whose research and processing-plant startup funds are crucial if cellulose-derived ethanol is to replace gasoline to any significant degree. The Department of Energy (DOE) and companies engaged in cellulosic biomass research hope that scientific advances will soon make cellulose-to-ethanol fuels both viable and profitable. But legislators, while showing some support for basic research, have not yet shown a willingness to rely on a power source other than oil. An established cellulosic biomass industry will also have to …